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Biden’s Best Chance to Tackle US Inequality

Spending Package Would be Groundbreaking Expansion of Social Safety Net

US President Joe Biden speaks on how his Build Back Better agenda will lower prescription drug prices, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 12, 2021. © 2021 Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA/AP Images

Critics in the United States who argue about the cost of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package pending in the US Congress, which would expand government investment in the country’s broken social safety net and protections for workers, are missing the point. It’s not the price of the package, but the cost to human rights – including rights to an adequate standard of living, workers’ rights, and non-discrimination – if the US does not sufficiently invest in them.

Lawmakers are spending September discussing the details of what could be one of the most consequential US legislation in generations, aimed at combatting growing economic and racial inequality that leaves millions unable to access adequate and affordable housing, health care, or other basic protections.

The spending package would:

  • Protect the right to affordable housing by significantly expanding critical housing assistance programs and making a historic investment in public housing, home to nearly two million people in the US
  • Create a permanent family and medical leave program
  • Empower millions of workers to bargain collectively for fair wages, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions by including components of the PRO Act, which limits companies’ ability to discourage unions
  • Reform the drug pricing system and provide affordable health insurance coverage for millions of people with low incomes by closing the Medicaid coverage gap and making permanent the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace subsidies
  • Cut child poverty by extending the Child Tax Credit expansion
  • Provide the largest federal investment in jobs aimed at tackling climate change

Even if the reconciliation package passes, legislators will still have work to do to create a strong safety net. US policymakers should expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, which, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, excluded two-thirds of unemployed workers. Earlier in the pandemic, unemployment benefits were temporarily expanded, keeping 5.5 million people who lost work out of poverty in 2020, without affecting the aggregate employment level. These benefits should be permanently extended to all workers, including app-based “gig” workers, when they lose their jobs.

US Census Bureau data show that these types of benefits work: all government aid combined protected 53 million people in the US from poverty in 2020. With 60 million adults still struggling to cover everyday expenses, legislators should not water down these reforms. Congress should seize the opportunity to prevent further hardship and protect essential benefits.

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