Assessing Biden’s Equity Agenda, One Year In

January 27, 2022

Introduction: What Then Can We Do? 

President Biden took office at a time of enormous racial reckoning in the United States. In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin sparked one of the largest, most multiracial movements for Black liberation and racial justice in American history, akin only to the civil rights protests of the 1960s in scale, scope, and demand for change. Police brutality is perhaps the most excruciating part of a painful and intertwined system of exclusions—across education, health, income, wealth. These compounding injustices can be overwhelming. The question for Americans today, almost two years after Floyd’s death, is where concrete change is possible. 

The question for the Biden administration is the role it can and should play to drive greater race equity.

The fact that Joe Biden continues to govern, in his own words, as a “mainstream Democrat” makes his administration’s focus on structural exclusions and the “unbearable human costs of systemic racism” all the more remarkable. With an executive order on his first day in office, Biden decried “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions,” lauded “a historic movement for justice,” and declared its leadership on “an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges that we face.” 

This level of focus—and this kind of language from a president of the United States—is unprecedented. Now, as we head into the second year of the Biden administration, what comes next? Is the administration making progress against its big goals, and how will we know?

In this blog post, I argue that real progress must come from many sources: sharper, deeper policies; stronger government agencies; and a better and more creative use of institutions and tools—from hiring and staffing to data collection and map-making. Very little of this will make headlines, or deliver the political thrill of a campaign won or legislation passed. But it matters. And to matter most, the Biden team’s whole-of-government approach must go past the thin, privatized, education-and-competition version of racial liberalism that it inherited. This administration can lead if it moves toward genuine material equity based on a historical understanding and a willingness to redress and repair past exclusions.

Three Measures of Progress

Here, I suggest three different ways to conceptualize and assess the federal government’s equity work:

  • Policies: Immediate Relief, and Root and Branch; 
  • Full Scale and Scope of Federal Powers; and
  • Changing Government Itself.

1. Policies: Immediate Relief, and Root and Branch 

Policymaking is the first, and most obvious, category. The Biden administration has done a strong job of prioritizing race equity in COVID relief and the American Rescue Plan. Perhaps the signature example is the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit (CTC), which went directly to the families of more than 60 million children, reduced monthly child poverty by 30 percent, and is projected to benefit Black, Latino, and Indigenous children most of all. The expanded CTC has, of course, now lapsed, due to the failure of Build Back Better negotiations to date and in particular thanks to Senator Joe Manchin’s objections

The pandemic itself devastated Black and Latino American communities disproportionately, especially in 2020 and early 2021. Early vaccine supply shortages—and a reliance on private vaccine providers more likely to be located in wealthier, whiter communities—led to deep racial disparities in vaccination rates during the first stages of rollout. Since then, American Rescue Plan, FEMA, and other funds have substantially closed the vaccination gap, but, according to available data, disparities remain, especially for Black Americans.

During the pandemic, the state of the economy, and especially the labor market, has been of paramount concern. The Biden administration’s focus on full employment, especially from the White House and the Treasury Department, has been welcome and important. Some of the news has been good. The Federal Reserve’s maintenance of historically low interest rates throughout the pandemic has been, in my colleague Mike Konczal’s words, “radical for a really conservative institution.” The White House is justifiably proud of an unemployment rate below 4 percent, the biggest one-year drop in unemployment in US history, and nothing that we could have expected at the beginning of the pandemic.

That said, we do not have truly full employment because today’s improving labor market has not sufficiently benefited workers of color. Yes, the Black-white employment gap has shrunk since the pandemic began, and the Latino-white gap is very small. But employment rates for Black women, in particular, worsened in December 2021, and at the end of the year the three-month average rate for Black unemployment was 7 percent. To fully end the racial disparities that persist in the labor market, the Biden administration cannot rely on monetary policy alone. It must strengthen Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Department of Labor enforcement against discriminatory activities in hiring and wages; fund programs focused on ending occupational segregation; promote unionization, the PRO Act, and policies that would restructure wages for health, home, and childcare workers; and generally prioritize policies that make long-term structural changes in employment. 

To truly live up to the promise of whole-of-government equity, the administration’s policies must reform and restructure in ways that are deliberately inclusive of Black and brown Americans. Federal agencies, in the wake of the January 2021 executive order, are establishing or strengthening race equity offices. The administration’s focus on Black farmers, whom the USDA continues to disproportionately exclude from farm and mortgage funds, is impressive, though the federal court’s halting of these efforts indicates a much deeper jurisprudential problem to be solved, and also points to the much greater challenge any race-forward agenda will face in the courts in the coming years given the current composition of the bench. This problem demands deep and lasting court reform. 

Whether the monies allocated by the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will prioritize the needs of low-income communities, and especially communities of color that have long been redlined and separated from jobs, remains unclear. Will public transportation serve Black, brown, and indigenous Americans, especially when so many last-mile funding decisions will be left to state and local decision-makers?

New ideas abound: Racially inclusive housing assistance—both rental and equitable, wealth-building home ownership. Funding for more equitable public transportation as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Wealth building, not just through financial literacy but through asset transfers, including changes to existing Social Security formulas, or “baby bonds,” which would give all children capital from birth indexed to help those with the least wealth. Wage increases in care jobs, which are held disproportionately by women of color. Justice40, which means that 40 percent of climate investments would benefit frontline communities and communities of color. 

All of these ideas are ripe for experimentation and action. If the administration wants to make its January 2020 pledge against entrenched disparities real, it must actively push toward these deeper policy goals.

2. Full Scale and Scope of Federal Powers

The second category to watch goes beyond policy. The federal government itself has a range of existing powers. The Biden administration can and should use all of its authorities toward equitable and inclusive ends. The government, as PolicyLink has highlighted, isn’t just a policymaker. It’s also the most powerful regulator and watchdog, the largest employer, and the biggest single purchaser in the United States. Its actions have outsize impact, for good or for ill. Using federal power to regulate, invest in, and shape markets must be done democratically—with transparency for the American public and especially for communities that have been historically excluded. 

The Biden team is beginning to use a number of the powers it already has. In April 2021, the administration issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for all federal contractors to $15. This will directly affect 5 million workers, many of whom are people of color, and could indirectly increase wages for millions more nonfederal workers by raising wage floors generally. The Federal Trade Commission has argued that antitrust reform can and should prioritize fighting concentration in industries, including tech and big data, where people of color are marginalized or disproportionately adversely affected. In December, the Office of Management and Budget outlined a number of steps federal agencies could take to ensure that small businesses and businesses from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities could equitably compete for government contracting. In making the government’s own operations more clean and more sustainable, with a goal of moving toward net zero emissions by 2050, the administration has pledged to prioritize equity and Justice40.

Notably, and importantly, the Biden administration has not exercised all of its executive powers. The most direct is student debt cancellation, which, legal experts say, is within a president’s authority. Over the last several decades, student debt has skyrocketed in an increasingly expensive, privatized higher education system, and has disproportionately burdened Black and brown students. As a Roosevelt Institute analysis shows, if cancelled at the $50,000 per borrower level, debt forgiveness could increase the wealth of Black Americans by up to 40 percent. 

On balance, the Biden team is using existing governmental powers toward big, important, and ambitious goals—certainly a change from the previous administration’s view of government and governmental powers, and more broadly a change from any previous administration’s view of how the federal government should prioritize equity. But much remains undone. The scale of outcomes based on this conceptual and rhetorical shift remains a real open question.

3. Changing Government Itself

Finally, using existing powers is not enough. The whole-of-government approach to equity requires not just making best use of existing governmental powers, but actually changing government itself.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council have focused on driving this kind of change throughout all of the federal agencies. The goals are ambitious, if not always media-worthy. Do all government agencies, from the Census Bureau to the Department of Labor, have the tools they need to collect necessary data related to equity, and are they using models that will allow them to project the equity impact of federal policies into the future? Are agencies designing service delivery, whether food stamps or tax returns, in ways that reduce administrative burden, meaning how difficult or easy it is for low-income people and people of color to access and use government services? Are agencies themselves prioritizing race equity, hiring both political and career staff who represent a range of lived experience, and who see themselves as agents of change and drivers of equity? And are agencies themselves truly seeking out advice, comment, and engagement from underserved and underrepresented communities—not just through transparency or open periods for public comment, but through novel and holistic approaches to reaching out and understanding peoples’ needs and experiences?

These are enormous undertakings. Seeding them now, during the first years of an administration committed to a whole-of-government approach, will be challenging enough. Whether they bear fruit, and when—perhaps decades from now—is even more uncertain. But they are important, and must be tackled.

Conclusion: Equity Requires Whole-of-Government Accountability

The jury is definitely still out on all of the Biden administration’s equity plans. Whether and how the administration is able to prioritize and implement affirmatively equitable policies, utilize the range of their current powers in the service of equity, and build the new muscle necessary to do this work is unclear. Each of these individual undertakings is obviously a tall order. Taken together, they are enormous—and also have the potential to be transformative.

My point here is not to say that the current administration has done well, or poorly, on any of this. Clearly, we have reason to worry about whether some of these efforts, like Justice40, will ever come to fruition. This is only to argue that, almost two years after uprisings against police brutality catalyzed a nation, one year after violent rioters stormed the nation’s capitol bearing the Confederate flag, and one year into the most ambitious and full-throated federal commitment to race equity in our nation’s history, there are myriad concrete actions the government can and must take. They must do so while facing a recalcitrant Senate that won’t amend the filibuster to protect voting rights for Black Americans and Americans of color. And they must do so knowing that some of the benefits of their changes will not be felt for years, or even decades.

The stakes are high, and the dangers are great. The administration must demonstrate fortitude, staying power, and organizational and political skills to keep its promises. But we do have a way to judge progress: look for root and branch policies, and the full and creative use of governmental institutions and authority. These are the measures against which we can hold power to account.