Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2020s. It’s that Joe Biden, famous Congressional centrist and lifelong denizen of the Washington, D.C., establishment, is showing himself to be a liberal. And maybe even a… feminist?
That’s probably too generous for a man remembered for sniffing women’s hair and giving a pass to allegations of sexual harassment by a Supreme Court nominee. But there is a big difference between how most observers thought Biden would govern, and what he’s actually done during his first 100 days as the nation’s chief executive.
President Biden’s first address to Congress was notable for several reasons. Most obviously, his address was notable for the lack of vindictiveness, racism, outright lies, and bizarre utterances completely divorced from reality that characterized his predecessor.
Right out of the gate, Biden gave a big hint at where his policy proposals were going, when he opened his speech by addressing the two women flanking him: “Madam Vice President, Madam Speaker—No president has ever said those words from this podium. No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time!”
But on substance, too, Biden’s speech was chock-full of policy proposals that seemed to originate from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, especially the nearly 40% of that Congressional caucus who are women and have long sought a renewed focus on the social safety net.
Not that there wasn’t anything to quibble with in Biden’s address. A lot of the “America is back” messaging had a nationalistic tinge that we should be moving beyond, especially after the past four years of escalating White supremacy. But overall, what we heard was a cohesive agenda that made the case for a massive spending program on social programs that have for too long been neglected.
The centerpiece of Biden’s speech was the American Families Plan, a $1.8 trillion proposal that focuses on supporting children and families through a variety of universal entitlement programs and tax benefits, all paid for with increased taxes and enforcement on the wealthiest Americans.
The Families Plan follows on Biden’s other big proposal, the American Jobs Plan (with a $2.3 trillion price tag, also paid for mostly by reorienting the tax code to weigh on the rich).
Together they constitute a drastic redefinition not just of the word “infrastructure,” but of the role of government in American society. The proposals would also be one of the largest investments in the public welfare ever. (The New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt cost $41.7 billion at the time, or $653 billion in 2009 dollars. Many Great Society programs are still running after almost 60 years, and as such they’ve become embedded into the fabric of the modern U.S. government.)
But the important thing the Families Plan does is shine a light on an area where the U.S. has been woefully lacking for decades: social programs, especially those that would ease the financial and emotional burdens placed on women both in and out of the workforce: high-quality child and elder care, universal preschool, wage equity, affordable college education, support for teacher preparation and retention, and much more, including a national paid family leave program.
The U.S. is the only wealthy nation (and one of only eight countries worldwide) that doesn’t have a national paid parental leave program. Offering two years of universal preschool will be a huge benefit for young families with low and moderate incomes, who have been forced into a Sophie’s choice between leaving work to care for children (and lose income) or shelling out most of the income they make from working for day care—assuming they could even find affordable, accessible child care.
This last point has been acutely felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, when, as businesses retrenched or reduced operations and schooling moved into the home, many women—more than 2.3 million as of early 2021—just left the workforce entirely.
Whether the Biden administration realizes or not, his proposal offers a more holistic view of the economy, something that has been desperately needed as we watch wealth inequality spiral out of control, and as the conflict between the haves and have-nots provides fuel for a fire threatening to burn down democracy around the world.
It represents a complete repudiation of the neoliberal thinking that has dominated the U.S. and other industrial democracies since 1980. Biden acknowledged as much in his speech to Congress: “Trickle-down economics has never worked, and it’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.”
Focusing heavily on the social safety net also brings into focus the vast amount of unpaid labor that women perform that never gets accounted for by mainstream economists.
Kate Raworth, author of the highly influential Doughnut Economics, made exactly this point in her book, writing, “mainstream economic theory is obsessed with the productivity of waged labour while skipping right over the unpaid work that makes it all possible, as feminist economists have made clear for decades.”
One of the earliest of those feminist economists is Hazel Henderson, whom Raworth credits for the inspiration of representing the economic system with an easily graspable image. Henderson depicted the economy as a layer cake, in which nature and this unpaid labor sector (what she calls the “love economy”) comprise the bottom half of the global industrial economy, on top of which rests the layers of the cash-based economy, including underground economy, public sector spending, and the “icing” of the private sector. Commonplace economic measures like the Gross Domestic Product do not account for half of all economic activity, Henderson’s model shows.
Another example of articulating this discrepancy in our economic thinking was a paper by Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation and Neva Goodwin of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, in which they argue that a “great transition” from a market economy with rampant wealth inequality, to one that prioritizes well-being, depends on the “core economy,” which are the people and resources that “comprise and sustain social life”:
“They are ‘core’ because they are central and essential to society. They underpin the market economy by raising children, caring for people who are ill, frail, and disabled, feeding families, maintaining households, and building and sustaining intimacies, friendships, social networks, and civil society. They have a key role, too, in safeguarding the natural economy, since everyday human behaviours and lifestyles strongly influence the way we use environmental resources. If we get it right, a thriving core economy will provide essential resources for a well-being system that is fit for the future.”
This new re-envisioning of economic activity seeks to capture not just the value of monetary transactions, but the value of all labor, of all resources, and of all kinds of capital, including social capital.
How much of a difference that expanded definition of economic activity may make remains unknown, precisely because we have only recently begun to try to measure it. But one 2019 Salary.com survey of U.S. mothers found that, if they were paid the going hourly rate for their daily roles as housekeeper, day care teacher, and van driver (among many others), they’d make nearly $180,000 a year.
We don’t often hear about that wage gap.
The current U.S. Congress comprises 142 women representatives and senators, 26.5% of the total membership and the highest number it’s ever been. That still places the United States pretty low down on the list of countries with women representation in their legislatures. And up until now, women’s influence over policymaking at the federal level has been sporadic at best, and nearly nonexistent before the 1980s.
In putting forth an ambitious plan to invest in the country’s social safety net, it looks like Biden’s administration, if not the president himself, has recognized the need to redress this historic snubbing of more than half the U.S. population.
For one thing, it’s good for the economy, because if 40 years of unfettered market capitalism have taught us anything, it’s that we’re doing it wrong.
But for another, as the U.S. continues to wake up to its many failures to embody the principles for which it purports to stand, we can look at the American Families Plan as a significant step toward a fairer and more just nation. After all, it’s about time.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.