Opinion | Americans Need a Government Bold Enough to Help

Even in normal times, the nation’s economic policies can often feel detached from the daily lives of millions of Americans who get up and go to work each day, terrified that they might slip out of the middle class — or never make it in — but for me, an economist advising President Biden, the struggle to achieve economic security is deeply personal.

In the early 1980s, when interest rates hit almost 20 percent, my father was “pink slipped” from his machinist job building 747s at Boeing, an event that upended our family finances. It wasn’t just my family. All the kids on my cul-de-sac watched as our parents worried about health insurance and the mortgage. We were lucky; the recession was relatively short, and between my mom’s paycheck and my dad’s benefits, we got by until the orders for planes resumed.

But I recall being shocked by how much power Boeing had over our lives. When my dad was laid off, the economic security my parents had long worked for disappeared overnight. It got me thinking about the question that would come to animate my career: How can what social scientists call countervailing forces — things like unions and democratic governments that respond to crises affecting communities through no fault of their own — cushion individual families against the whims of the marketplace?

Millions of Americans don’t trust the government or its ability to improve their lives, and it’s not hard to see why. For decades, politicians of both parties have allowed corporations to grow into vast monopolies. They gave tax breaks to companies that shifted jobs overseas while promoting the use of fossil fuels that are destroying our planet and poisoning our communities. And they offered huge tax cuts to the very wealthy while refusing to support working families.

In doing so, these politicians led people to believe that government was the problem. But it is now abundantly clear that the problem lies with a government that rewards wealth over work, that serves big corporate interests over working families.

Both during and after the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden pushed us — his economic advisers — to lay out how the policies we were proposing would help everyday workers get through the economic crisis wrought by the pandemic. We all knew that we couldn’t just tinker around the edges; we needed a government that actually addressed the challenges that have held back families, and in turn our economy, for decades.

Parents trying to provide for their families should not have to choose between quality child care, home care for an aging loved one and their job. They shouldn’t be bankrupted by prescription drug costs or other health care bills. Towns built on manufacturing should be sustained and rebuilt by the industries of the future, like clean energy.

Mr. Biden’s economic agenda to “build back better” is grounded in the idea that our government isn’t at the service of big corporations and the wealthy. It’s an idea that together we can create an economy that serves people like my father, that we can do the obvious things that allow working families to get ahead, instead of leaving them behind.

The past year and a half has been a hard lesson in the power and promise of a strong public sector. As millions of Americans fell ill, what did we do? Time and again, we looked to government for help. For vaccine distribution, critical unemployment support and small business relief, Americans continued to turn to their government.

The pandemic underscored flaws in the way that the United States thinks about work. For most of the past century, Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, 40-hour workweeks and the right to collectively bargain have made it possible to earn a fair wage and protected us when jobs weren’t available or we grew too old or too sick to work. But many Americans also do the unpaid work of caring for a loved one — work the government has never particularly valued or sought to protect.

That is why Mr. Biden has proposed paid family and medical leave, so people can be home when their families need care. These proposals also include significant investments in child care and home care for the aging and disabled — with better pay for care workers — so that families can afford these services. We all have stories of struggling to care for the people we love; my mother-in-law had to quit her job to care for her aging mother, and my father, protected by his union, was able to use unpaid leave and vacation time so he could care for his. They could both have used more help from the government.

Americans also need a government that can bring essentials, like food and education, within reach for families whose wages just haven’t kept up. Middle-class tax cuts like the child tax credit, nutritional programs and free community college help families afford the basics.

The government can also help communities cope with the damage wrought by extreme weather. Over the course of just three months this past summer, nearly a third of Americans lived somewhere that experienced a federally declared disaster, making them eligible for various kinds of federal aid, including deducting the cost of repairs on their taxes. The transition to clean energy can — and should — enhance American competitiveness and create good jobs. But it requires sustained government support.

The president’s vision for the economy — for shoring up the middle class and addressing climate challenges — has culminated in two bills currently making their way through Congress: the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the reconciliation package. For those who are worried about the price tag for such an ambitious reimagining of the social contract: We can lay down the tracks for meaningful reforms and pay for them. The president has put forth a robust tax agenda that rewards work, not wealth, one that will ensure companies pay their fair share and encourage them to keep jobs in America.

Some have raised concerns that today’s pandemic-related price increases will continue, arguing that we should pare back support to families and businesses. However, as 17 Nobel laureates in economics and countless other leading economists have said, Mr. Biden’s plan would have no significant effect on prices for two reasons. The first is that the plan would invest in the physical and human infrastructure necessary for business to thrive down the line. The second is that when these investments were paid for — and they would be; those who benefited the most from economic growth would start paying their fair share — inflationary pressure would be minimized.

This is not an emergency measure, or a quick fix. It is a plan to improve the productive capacity of the United States by enhancing and increasing labor supply; supporting economic competitiveness; and delivering strong, stable and broadly shared growth, which would moderate pressure on prices over time.

In the White House, we always knew that recovering from a historic pandemic would not be easy. We put the face-to-face services of a $21.5 trillion economy on ice. As the economy recovers, any hiccup can create problems that might increase costs in some sectors — from the parent who can’t go back to work because her day care center isn’t open yet, to the shop floor that isn’t functioning at full capacity because the semiconductors haven’t arrived.

Mr. Biden has set out to mend broken supply chains as aggressively as he tackled other challenges with the American Rescue Plan. But getting back to where we were is not enough. We need to emerge stronger and more resilient. And that’s why we need a more robust government, capable of actually extending a helping hand to those who need it — families like my own who have realized that the beneficence of a private company won’t ever provide the economic security we all want.

Congress has a choice to make. Does it want to grow our economy by investing in the middle class and the public sector, and fundamentally recalibrating the relationship between government and the people it represents, or continue giving billions in tax handouts to the wealthiest Americans and multinational corporations? It’s time to build back better.

Heather Boushey (@hboushey46) is a member of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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