There is an I.O.U. in Black America’s pocket as President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. steps into the Oval Office. In his victory speech, he emphatically thanked Black voters for rescuing his campaign and helping propel him to victory, proclaiming, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Taken by itself, Biden’s promise suggests the incoming administration will heavily focus on the policy issues affecting Black Americans (pandemic relief, joblessness, police brutality, etc.), appoint Black and Latinx leaders to senior-level positions at agencies, or a combination of both. The stakes could not be higher.
Early cabinet appointments and the makeup of his transition team put Biden on track to achieve a historic level of racial and gender diversity. Appointments matter – especially Black women named to high-level positions, from Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris to cabinet secretaries and other high-visibility, public-facing roles in the administration.
Soon, the time will come for Biden to make good on his I.O.U. with actual policies. This is the step, quite frankly, that matters most and breeds skepticism as to how far the Biden-Harris presidency will go to recognize and reward the loyalty of Black voters, who powered the ticket to victory in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Anything less than a full commitment may well provoke rueful disbelief and outright anger.
Atop the wish list is the need for hundreds of billions of dollars in state and local aid to make up for shrinking tax receipts, and avert layoffs of public employees and deep service cuts. The new pandemic stimulus bill approved this week includes $4 billion that adverts doomsday cuts in New York City bus and subway service. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (disclosure, I am a member) needs substantial additional federal aid in 2022 and 2024 to avoid service cuts that disproportionately impact low-income workers, the poor and undermines New York City’s economic recovery.
The Biden administration must ensure the equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccines to the poor and people of color. The Trump administration is already making a mess of vaccine distribution. There are currently few safeguards to stop people from cutting the line after the initial doses are administered to front-line medical workers and first responders. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s independent Clinical Advisory Task Force excluded a member of NYC Health + Hospitals, which does not yield future confidence.
Biden must also address COVID-19’s mounting economic damage with a wartime-scale domestic relief program focused on jobs and subsidies to abate the alarming eviction crisis. The cash rescue must go to renters as well as small landlords, like the owners of Brooklyn brownstones with first-floor tenants. The jobs program must be labor intensive, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, to address high unemployment, which in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods is twice the national average of 6.7 percent.
The economic program must zero in on the needs of children and working mothers. One in four moms are cutting back on their hours or leaving the work force entirely because of a lack of childcare, according to a recent study from leanin.org and the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Here in New York City our own Unheard Third survey found that 34 percent of low-income mothers lost their job temporarily or permanently since the start of the pandemic. Job loss has led to increased hardship for many low-income mothers: nearly two-thirds are food insecure and are struggling to feed their families.
Student loans are imposing crushing burdens on millions of Americans and their families. Biden can provide desperately needed help by executive order with a stroke of the presidential pen. Federal loan payments are frozen through January 2021. The president-elect has indicated that soon after taking office, he would forgive $10,000 in federal loans per student, while some of his advisors and Democratic supporters are urging Biden to forgive as much as $50,000 per student. Forgiveness would put money into the pockets of thousands of New Yorkers in the Bronx and Brooklyn, which is home to clusters of student borrowers in default.
Health care was the most dominant issue in the 2020 presidential election, and voters cast their ballots with health care and COVID-19 in mind. Biden was involved in crafting the Affordable Care Act; you can be sure he will try to strengthen and expand the landmark healthcare law. That means increasing competition, lowering costs, eliminating surprise billing and expanding enrollments.
I believe Biden will try to make good on his promises. But every forward progression of racial justice has been met with an inevitable racial backlash. We’ve seen this play out repeatedly throughout American history. Biden and Harris will be forced to fight every stop along the way. The battlefield is still taking shape. A lot depends on the outcome of the two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.