Meet the Roosevelters: Alí R. Bustamante

April 22, 2022

Our “Meet the Roosevelters” blog series seeks to give fresh insight into the people behind the Roosevelt Institute: our research interests, personal stories, and what drives us in our work.

Alí R. Bustamante joined the Roosevelt Institute in July 2021. As Deputy Director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at Roosevelt, he specializes in how public policy can structure markets around both economic and social value and empower Americans through the provision of public goods and stronger labor protections. Alí is an expert on labor, economics, and public policy and a native Spanish speaker. His research and analysis have been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, CNN, Forbes, and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Roosevelt, Alí served as chief economist at the Louisiana Workforce Commission, senior research associate at the Southern Economic Advancement Project, and as faculty at Florida International University, the University of New Orleans, and Loyola University New Orleans. He earned a BA and PhD from the University of Miami, specializing in political economy. Born in Masaya, Nicaragua and raised in Miami, he now lives in New Orleans.

Alí, what brought you to Roosevelt?

For me, the COVID-19 pandemic represented a crisis that American institutions were neither prepared for nor capable of addressing with the dominant neoliberal framework. Yet there were few voices proposing an alternative approach. The Roosevelt Institute has been a leader in developing a new economic vision for how government could respond to the pandemic and the subsequent recovery. As Roosevelt grew to meet the challenges of the moment, I wanted to contribute my expertise toward building a more inclusive and equitable economy,   


As Deputy Director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at Roosevelt, you direct a team focused on the full life cycle of the American worker—from education and workforce development to the impact of unions and the student debt many workers carry throughout their lives. What drew you to labor economics?

I see labor economics and policy as my preferred toolkit to better understand and communicate why it’s critical that we acknowledge the social and economic value of work and address the precarious and insecure conditions that undermine workers. Every day, millions of people work to make our society prosper, but their contributions are largely taken for granted. The focus on markets and capital obscures the fact that every good and service we consume to fulfill our needs and wants is the product of someone’s time and effort. Acknowledging the value of all work—paid and unpaid—is essential to understanding our own humanity and our shared responsibility to support all workers.


How have your family, community, and upbringing shaped your professional and personal choices?

Every single one of my personal and professional accomplishments is due to my mother. My mother, a schoolteacher at the time, fled Nicaragua with my brother and me in the mid-1980s during the Contra War. For much of the next two decades, she worked as a nanny while my brother and I went to school; we lived in Miami—undocumented and in poverty. Yet, because of her, I was always surrounded by a supportive community that helped me overcome major hurdles. Every day, I try to emulate her perseverance for what is good and just, her support of others, and her hope for a better future. 


The Institute has published extensively on the progressiveness of student debt cancellation. We know it can address racial disparities, benefit household well-being, boost the economy, and help Americans most hurt by the pandemic. What else should policymakers know about the issue?

Policymakers must understand that education is not a business and should not be reserved for those who can afford it. All public schools—K-12 and postsecondary institutions—provide an essential public good that should be free to all who use it without the burden of debt. The social and economic benefits of debt-free education are clear, and there is no merit in repeating the mistakes of the past and stripping wealth from American families through student debt. 


You previously worked with the Southern Economic Advancement Project and the Louisiana Workforce Commission and have taught at several universities. What concerns have local communities and students been voicing, and how does that influence your work at the national level?

Having had the privilege to work with and learn from civic organizations, labor unions, students, and government agencies for more than a decade, I’m struck by the growing sense that only the powerful benefit from the economy and from government. Yet, I am a firm believer in the power of government to provide its people with the support and stability needed to live a dignified life and to promote an economy that does the same. In my work at the national level, I often think about how people across different communities will experience a policy change: How will the change be valued, understood, and felt? This process pushes me to be more thoughtful about integrating transparency, accountability, and community involvement in how national policy is designed and implemented.


As you told The Grio, lack of salary transparency seems to be another driver of income inequality, and New York City will soon require most employers to disclose their salary bands in job listings. Are there other simple legislative changes that could have a great impact on the livelihood of workers?

Simple solutions are often underappreciated and overlooked. For example, pay transparency, like knowing the typical rate of pay offered by an employer, is a simple and low-cost way to more effectively match workers with employers and reduce the incidence of discriminatory pay practices. Other simple legislative changes with high impact on workers are robust minimum wages, which raise incomes without an administrative burden; legalization of cannabis, which reduces barriers to employment and exclusionary hiring practices; and reducing occupational licenses, which lowers the administrative and financial burdens of employment.


What book should policymakers be reading right now?

I highly recommend The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind by Raghuram Rajan. This book rightly places the community at the forefront of economic, social, and political life. For thousands of years, people have banded together to create communities with shared values and goals. Through communities, we create the rules and norms that crystalize the expectations we have of each other and as a collective. As such, communities can be inclusive and broadly prosperous, or they can be exclusive and unequal. Rajan argues that powerful minorities have employed economic and political divisiveness to subvert democracy and concentrate gains at the expense of broad prosperity. While I disagree with the importance that Rajan places on competitive markets, I share his call for empowering communities through greater self-determination and inclusive localism. Policymakers must act boldly to preserve and extend democratic governance in economic and political life because history has shown us the consequences of inequality and exclusion.


Looking ahead at the policy landscape of 2022 and beyond, what opportunities and threats do you see on the horizon?

I’m extremely excited about the upcoming reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which has the potential to improve worker power through greater representation on workforce development boards, better wage and employment standards, and stronger links to labor unions and social support services. On the threat side: Although we are two years into the pandemic, I continue to see COVID-19 and related variants to be the biggest threat to Americans and the world. With about 1 million deaths in the US, and countless millions across the world, the lingering pandemic continues to disrupt lives and economies—undermining the policy achievements that led to the fastest economic recovery in modern history. 


What gives you hope?

The power of community and the good of inclusivity.


Catch up on Alí’s latest writings here.