U.S. policies have shifted more to the benefit of poor and near-poor people in President Biden’s first month than in any month in the last 70 years. This year is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move toward an economy that provides justice and opportunity for all.
A week before President Biden took office, he outlined his plans to get the pandemic under control, rescue the economy (with a focus on assistance to the people and communities who have been hardest hit), and then launch investments designed to build a more just and sustainable economy.
In his first days in office, he announced a series of executive actions. One of the very first was focused on the current surge in hunger in America, especially among children. It has expanded the national nutrition programs. Another early action focused on racial equity - restoring protection against discrimination in housing and the federal government’s reliance on for-profit companies to manage prisons.
Biden’s executive actions related to other problems were all designed with an eye to economic justice. The new administration’s top priority is COVID management, especially speeding up vaccinations, but it includes federal action to reach population groups who are most likely to be neglected. In executive actions related to health care generally, the President reopened the health insurance exchanges and ended the work requirements some states have imposed on Medicaid.
Importantly, Biden’s climate change plan promises strong emphasis on creating quality jobs in our shift to an environmentally sustainable economy. The new administration is committed to developing alternative energy businesses and to focusing business development and assistance in communities that rely on coal for jobs.
Biden’s immigration announcement included immediate action to end construction of Trump’s wall (an ugly symbol of harsh immigration policies) and strengthen DACA (allowing millions of young people to thrive and contribute to their communities).
I was especially heartened by President Biden’s early attention to Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Biden has put an end to U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing in civilian areas.
Congress is now moving quickly to pass legislation based on the President’s emergency health and economic plan. Low-income people and people of color have been hit hardest by COVID-19 and stand to benefit most from an orderly, science-informed public health response. Many low-income and working-class families desperately need the schools to open, and the legislation includes funds to allow schools to reopen safely.
The economic assistance in the legislation is also focused on the people and communities who have been hardest hit by the economic fall-out from the pandemic. Most notably, it would expand low-income tax credit programs, especially for the poorest families and families with children. Hunger and poverty among children has surged during the pandemic, and the tax credit reforms are expected to cut child poverty in half. For many working families, the tax credits maintain work incentives and make work pay.
This new package of COVID relief legislation also includes $10 billion to deal with international aspects of the global pandemic - more than all the prior COVID relief packages combined. The number of people in absolute poverty around the world increased by about 100 million in 2020, and the 50 poorest countries have so far received almost none of the world’s supply of COVID vaccine.
President Biden’s inaugural address was all about overcoming the deep divisions in our country, and he has made conversations with Republican legislators a high priority. The Democratic package for COVID relief includes direct payments of $1,400 to nearly all Americans, but Biden has expressed openness to Republican proposals to focus these payments among lower-income people. Senator Romney has come forward with his own proposal to expand child tax credits.
I’m now serving as coordinator for the Circle of Protection, a broad coalition of church bodies and organizations from all the families of Christianity. We are focusing especially among Republicans. The Democrats have narrow majorities in both houses of Congress, but some bipartisanship in the development and passage of Biden’s first legislation would be an important step toward civic health and sustained progress.
People who are represented by Republicans in Congress can help by encouraging them to help shape and then support the COVID rescue package that is moving through Congress. There was strong Republican opposition to the COVID package that was developed by a bipartisan group of senators in December. But in the end, 92 senators voted for it. Also, many legislators in both parties were personally shaken by the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and I pray that some of them may find themselves newly open to working together.