Nearly a century ago, a robust set of policies and programs forever changed our expectations of the government. The implementation of the New Deal in 1933 set the wheels in motion for broad-reaching efforts to address the effects of the Great Depression. Complex, yet flawed proposals were put forth to build and enhance the foundation of meaningful work and wealth for Americans. It sought to “meet immediate distress”, provide “a basis of permanent employment”, and to advocate for the welfare of the country’s future. The bold provisions of the New Deal established a litany of policies and programs that not only spoke to the moment the country was in, but called out the need to act with sights set on the future.
It is with that same spirit of forward momentum that we must, at this moment, recommit to our goals for meaningful work and wealth in the United States. Though factors that have led to this current juncture vary greatly from those that underpinned the Great Depression, the tenants of the original New Deal serve as a guide to achieving meaningful work and wealth in the era of COVID-19 and beyond.
Our Current Situation
Meaningful Work & Wealth—one of the Seven Vital Conditions—is about personal, family, and community wealth that provides the means for healthy, secure lives. It is about good-paying, fulfilling jobs and careers, as well as financial security and wealth-building opportunities that extend across the lifespan. At this moment in our history, 16.3 million Americans are unemployed, with communities of color absorbing the highest rates of unemployment.
The number of Black business owners has fallen more than 40 percent since the pandemic began. Short-term responses by the federal government through programs like the Paycheck Protection Program were passed with good intentions, but lacked substantive approaches to assist the businesses that truly needed relief.
Many frontline workers like farmworkers, foodservice employees, maintenance workers, medical staff, and more, are immigrants. However, COVID-19 relief packages such as the CARES Act require a social security number to obtain aid, leaving out millions of U.S. taxpayers in a time of great need.
The pandemic has led to ”financial vulnerability for a large portion of the population”, making vital conditions like humane housing and basic needs for health and safety unstable at best, and scarce at worst.
Relief, Recovery, & Reform
Many, if not all, of the policies and programs implemented upon the passage of the New Deal could be sorted into three categories, or stages of action: relief, recovery, and reform. Following a similar pattern, change-makers and elected officials can set about addressing the reality of our current situation, while also making real and lasting change for our communities. A plan that boosts incomes, reduces debt, and invests in job creation can provide a path out of the tangled web of problems we presently face.
We have the opportunity today to write a modern version of the New Deal, one where we don’t exclude communities of color, and instead, open up a landscape of opportunity in the name of meaningful work and wealth. Lawmakers can expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, allowing for more money in the pockets of Americans. The minimum wage disparity can finally be addressed, giving workers more “wage-setting power”. Student loan debt can be cancelled, allowing for increased cash flow into our economy. A federal jobs guarantee can provide meaningful work for anyone who needs it. Health benefits can be decoupled from employment through access to universal health care, allowing for flexibility in the job market and financial security in the event of a health crisis.
A path toward relief, recovery, and reform in this moment of fear and uncertainty exists, but we have to challenge ourselves to dream big. The success of future generations is dependent on the ability to articulate and implement policy that moves beyond reactionary legislation, and toward policy that invests in the future because of where we are in the present.
Andrea Waner, MPA. Andrea is a social equity and human rights policy educator located in Columbia, Missouri and a contributing writer for Community Commons.