Spotlight Exclusives

Spotlight/AEI/Brookings roundtable surveys 2021 policy landscape

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How the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress can find bipartisan common ground on poverty and opportunity policy in the year ahead was the focus of a roundtable conversation Thursday hosted by Spotlight, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution.

After opening remarks by AEI President and Morgridge Scholar Robert Doar and Richard Reeves, the John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead chair and senior fellow of Economic Studies at Brookings, a four-person panel of leading experts moderated by New York Times reporter Jason DeParle discussed how Washington should respond to the continuing economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic as well as the longstanding scourge of institutional racism.

DeParle said many policymakers will feel a tension between wanting to “build back or build back better” – meaning whether to try to restore the strong economic conditions that existed before the pandemic hit last year or to respond to societal fractures exposed by COVID-19 with even more ambitious policies.

Camille Busette, senior fellow for economic studies at Brookings and director of its Race, Prosperity and Inclusion Initiative, said that “it’s not enough to want to get back to where we were before COVID . . . we can’t rely on our usual, conventional methods because what we have seen is not just how vulnerable many Americans are but how that vulnerability has really been exposed among people of color and other vulnerable communities.”

Scott Winship, resident scholar and director of poverty studies at AEI, agreed but said that even returning to the pre-COVID economy would be a tremendous achievement. “Getting back to the pre-pandemic economy isn’t sufficient, but boy, it’s the most important thing we can do right now,” Winship said. He said the specific response to the pandemic has to continue and strengthen, calling for an improved vaccination regime, easily obtainable at-home tests and more statewide mask mandates.

Winship and Busette were joined on the panel by Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, and Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council during the Obama and Clinton administrations. The group identified a number of potential areas for bipartisan compromise in the year ahead, including:

  • Job creation, particularly in industries devastated by the pandemic: Doar said he hoped all sides of the poverty/opportunity debate would emphasize getting people back to work. “This pandemic will end and the real key to getting poverty levels back to where they were in 2019 and even better is really rapidly getting people back into employment. Earnings really do matter,” said Doar.
  • Increasing the child tax credit: While noting there will be some Republican concerns, Sperling said he hoped a proposal along the lines of the one outlined by the Biden administration on Thursday would ultimately generate bipartisan support. “We know that this one measure can have significant impact,” Sperling said. “If people really look at it, they will see this about the child, the dignity of the child.”
  • Focusing on creating opportunity as well as alleviating poverty: All the panelists agreed that more needs to be done to try to create upward mobility for all Americans, and there was particular interest in the possibility of recreating a White House Office of Opportunity in the new administration. “At the end of the day, opportunity is about having agency,” Reeves said.
  • Help for schools and students who are falling behind: “We ought to be more concerned about the learning deficits coming out of the pandemic, particularly for poor kids, and to my mind there just hasn’t been nearly enough focus on getting kids back in school but also trying to deal with remediation once we’re through with the pandemic,” said Winship.
  • Trying to make precious financial resources go farther: Roy called this idea “disposable income inequality” and the panel agreed that policymakers need to look at issues like food assistance and childcare help as ways to help Americans with low incomes have a reduced cost of living. “How can policy tools reduce the cost of living so the money you earn can go farther?” asked Roy.
  • Making some of the pandemic responses permanent: The panel primarily focused on the additional unemployment insurance offered during the pandemic and whether there could be a bipartisan path to making at least some part of that measure permanent. “While we think of the pre-pandemic economy as very robust, it was not robust for low-income workers, many of whom are workers of color,” said Busette “We’re talking about a whole class of folks, tens of millions of Americans and their families, who were incredibly vulnerable. We do not want to go back to that.”

The virtual event was well-attended by nearly 300 participants. A recording of the event will be posted on Spotlight’s website.

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