Editor’s Note: Catherine Powell (@ProfCatherine) is a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed here belong to the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Now that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are more than halfway through their first one hundred days in office, their leadership demonstrates what a difference two months makes. In addressing the linked health and economic crises, the Biden administration is tackling both the global Covid-19 pandemic and related pressing domestic challenges.
And yet Biden can do more to combat our interconnected pandemics of race and gender inequality and Covid-19. If this is a New Deal-like moment, the recovery should draw on the positive aspects of that era, but must not repeat its shortcomings (given that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies excluded the predominantly Black domestic and farm work sectors from labor protections established in that era).
I coined the term “Color of Covid” in an CNN op-ed published last year to think critically about the race and gender justice paradoxes the pandemic unmasks. Black and Latinx Americans are overrepresented among both front line workers and among the unemployed.
Women, especially of color, face a similar duality – what I call the “Gender of Covid.” On the one hand, women are overrepresented in essential work. And as part of the invisible labor force that keeps the economy afloat, they continue to face deep gender (intersected by race) pay gaps and are underrepresented in management as well as other leadership and more visible roles across the economy.
On the other hand, women have also borne the brunt of job losses. While the American labor force participation of women hit an all-time high by the end of 2019, female employment has plummeted during the pandemic. This past September, there was a huge dip in employment for working moms (with the return of children to online school). Women were hard hit yet again in December, when hospitality (and other sectors where women predominate) were especially impacted by a new wave of lockdowns — disproportionately affecting Black, Latinx, and Asian American women in particular — making the current recession a “shecession.”
Biden has already taken substantial steps to advance twin health and economic recoveries.
In terms of the health crisis, during his first presidential news conference on Thursday, Biden set a new goal of reaching 200 million vaccinations by his 100th day in office –doubling his original goal.
Earlier this month, he announced a major boost in his vaccine rollout, teeing up enough doses to inoculate all K-12 teachers, staff and childcare providers by the end of March and all adults by the end of May. In his first prime-time address from the White House — marking the grim one-year anniversary of the pandemic — Biden also projected a potential return to relative normalcy by July 4th if we continue social distancing and wearing masks.
Promising news. However, at the time of writing, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID Data Tracker, nearly 70% of those who are fully vaccinated in the United States are White, while only 7.2% are Black, 7.4% Latinx, 4% Asian, 1.6% American Indian/Alaska Native, .2% native Hawaiian/ Other Pacific Islander, and 10.6% identifying as “multiple/other.”
To help counter this, discussion about vaccine hesitancy should be reframed as one on institutional trustworthiness, given the racist history of medical experimentation on Black Americans (for example, in the Tuskegee Study) as well as the history (and contemporary reality) of unequal health care access. Furthermore, since White Americans are typically more affluent, have access to higher quality education, and have greater access to reliable WiFi and transportation, many have been able to better navigate the complex online vaccine schedule systems – even filling up appointment slots in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Given the digital divide, localities must ramp up creative ways to reach and prioritize under-served communities, even more so now that Biden has announced his goal of universal vaccine access, which may either intensify or ameliorate race disparities in distribution. And Blacks aren’t the only group whose hesitancy must be overcome; Republicans (as a group) report the highest rate of vaccine hesitancy, based on politically-inspired misinformation.
The Biden administration might expand work with trusted community leaders to overcome concerns based on deficiencies in institutional trustworthiness and misinformation campaigns (for example, campaigns aimed at science denialism). Further, state, local, tribal governments, and territorial public health departments could use funding from Biden’s American Rescue Plan to support teams of trained individuals to provide vaccines through door-to-door and mobile units programs—targeting older, more vulnerable and at-risk individuals.
On the economic recovery front, in addition to supporting vaccine distribution, Biden’s first major legislative achievement, the American Rescue Plan, extends federal unemployment benefits; provides an additional $1,400 stimulus check to those earning modest incomes; and expands the child tax credit up to $3,600 per year (projected to cut child poverty in half and reduce poverty overall by one-third). The final bill represents one of the most significant plans to address economic precarity (along with President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act) since the Great Depression.
In 2017, then-President Donald J. Trump signed a very different $1.5 trillion economic package into law. Whereas Trump’s tax cuts disproportionately padded the pockets of the very wealthy, the American Rescue Plan reduces the tax burden on all Americans except the top 1% of earners.
Looking forward, the Biden administration should take additional steps to address the race and gender structural inequalities that the pandemic unmasked. The executive orders the President has recently issued on race and gender equity are laudable first steps. Beyond this, Biden needs to re-imagine the future of work.
With more Americans working remotely – a trend likely to continue even after the pandemic – Biden’s “build back better” policies should be designed to support access to STEM education for women and people of color and to equip them with skills for jobs in the digital economy, where they are underrepresented. This is particularly pressing, given that displacement due to automation disproportionately affects these same groups. Beyond tech jobs, green jobs will become increasingly significant (because of climate change) and need to be made more equitable. According to a 2019 Brookings report, “Fewer than 20 percent of workers in the clean energy production and energy efficiency sectors are women, while black workers fill less than ten percent of these sectors’ jobs.”
Further, because of race disparities among those able to telecommute, Biden should continue to build on his initial steps to strengthening Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) protections for all workers, including front line, essential workers. Specifically, the Biden administration should go beyond issuing an emergency temporary standard (essentially emergency safety rules) for Covid-19 to ensuring adequate funding for OSHA to investigate and enforce such standards long term.
Importantly, as Ai-jen Poo and Heather McCulloch note, another critical sector for the future of work includes the care economy – made up mostly by women of color – given the need to care not only children but aging baby boomers. Just as the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges and tunnels connects workers to jobs, so too the human infrastructure of the care industry serves as a bridge for others like working parents, who rely on nannies and caregivers for their children. Because these jobs enable other people to do their jobs, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is gaining support, calling on Biden and other lawmakers to adopt a National Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers, which would apply federal labor laws to these workers.
Creating a more inclusive, fairer economy is not only morally right, it’s smart economics. In Biden’s effort to create a more inclusive economy, the administration must use the pandemic as a portal (in author Arundhati Roy’s words) to a more just world.