Rampant economic inequality in the United States demands structural solutions centered on racial justice. Income inequality and unequal access to jobs, health care, and benefits disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Racial inequity in wages already costs the U.S. economy about $2.3 trillion per year.
President Biden has stated his administration will prioritize closing racial, gender, and wage gaps. Biden and the Democrats in the House have advanced the demand to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and plan to collect and publicize data on wage inequality. These minimal steps, while necessary, will only help those at the margins with their immediate survival.
We need to eliminate systemic racial and economic inequity from the root. This starts with expanding access to benefits like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), ending the vicious cycles of debt that trap people in poverty, and designing economic reforms with low-wage workers in mind.
Now in their first 100 days, the Biden-Harris team can prioritize four key economic justice solutions:
Expand access to Medicaid, SNAP, and other benefits. The millions of low-income Americans struggling financially amidst the pandemic deserve a meaningful social safety net. Yet benefits systems are rife with technical roadblocks that prevent people from accessing assistance. The Biden administration can reduce racial disparities in health care access by rapidly approving the pending Medicaid waivers that expand post-partum care to one full year following the end of the pregnancy to curb increases in maternal mortality, particularly in communities of color.
Currently, 38 million people rely on SNAP (food stamps) to survive. The pandemic and economic crisis has more than doubled food insecurity since 2019, with one out of four households not knowing where their next meal will come from. The Trump administration’s restrictions on SNAP eligibility exacerbated food insecurity, and in much of the country, social services offices remain closed. The Biden administration can rollback restrictions to make SNAP available to more families nation-wide, change guidelines to make emergency SNAP benefits available to all SNAP recipients, and work to ensure that the local offices experiencing pandemic related changes do not create new barriers to accessing SNAP benefits. The 15% boost to SNAP benefits through September 2021 included in the President’s COVID rescue package will only help people who are able to apply and have their SNAP eligibility determined. And, the White House must push Congress to make food stamps available to all regardless of their immigration status.
Protect the rights of low-wage workers. Who these days are mostly Black and Latinx women and “essential” workers. Democrats in the Senate should immediately increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and eliminate all exemptions, including exemptions for farmworkers, domestic workers, and tipped workers. These exemptions are historically rooted in slavery and continue to leave low-wage workers out of wage reform.
The Biden administration should pursue new legislation to extend health and safety protections to low-income workers. For example, giving low-wage workers emergency paid sick days—at 100% of wages for any qualifying reason—and emergency paid family and medical leave. The administration should also get rid of exemptions that allow employers to deny these benefits to millions of working people. Biden can also ensure working people have permanent access to paid sick and paid family medical leave.
Cancel debt. Student debt forgiveness would relieve low-income borrowers who simply can’t afford the ever-soaring cost of education. Low-income borrowers are typically Black and Brown single parents. That’s why my organization NCLEJ is one of over 325 organizations demanding the Biden-Harris administration cancel student debt immediately.
In our case work at NCLEJ, my staff and I see the predatory nature of debt. Low-income Black and Latinx communities struggle with high debt loads, often from medical bills and court fines. Debt collectors and state agencies can empty people’s bank accounts, leaving families without money to eat, and take away driver’s licenses, depriving some people of their only viable and pandemic-safe mode of transportation. Along with putting a temporary moratorium on garnishing income and funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration should work with Congress to eliminate debt-based driver’s license suspension, stop subsistence income from being garnished, and protect a baseline amount of money in people’s bank accounts so they have money available for housing, food, and other essentials. Unfortunately, the recently passed American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 fails even to protect stimulus funds from garnishment. Inadequate consumer protections like this helped make 2020 one of the most profitable years ever for debt collectors. Congress should act immediately to pass standalone legislation to protect stimulus funds from garnishment so that they benefit families, not debt collectors.
Center disabled people. COVID-19 has taken away disabled peoples’ access to medical equipment and adequate healthcare, and put them at greater risk of infection in congregate care settings. NCLEJ is currently fighting to change New York State medical rationing policies that could allow hospitals to take personal ventilators away from chronic ventilator users to give them to patients deemed more likely to survive.
While the COVID-19 Pandemic has made clear that nursing homes are incredibly dangerous settings for people with disabilities, underfunded Medicaid programs have forced too many aging adults and people with disabilities into congregate settings. One essential solution to ensuring that disabled people and aging adults can stay safely in their homes during the pandemic is to fund competitive salaries for home care workers through Medicaid. The provision in the Rescue Bill to raise Medicaid funding for home and community-based services by 10% for one year is an encouraging start.
Justice for low-income working people means solving every problem they face. It means economic policy change for families not to survive, but to thrive. In 2020, the pandemic revealed how stark economic inequity is today. Job loss, Covid-19 related deaths, and food scarcity hit low-income Black families and communities of color the hardest. We all rely on underpaid essential workers who are feeling economic strain and risk exposure every day. The Biden administration must take much bolder steps to restructure racial-economic inequity.
Dennis Parker is the executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.