A few days ago, Bernie Sanders warned Joe Biden’s campaign that it needed to broaden its focus from attacking Donald Trump. “You got to give people an alternative or reason to vote for you other than saying, ‘I’m not Donald Trump,’ ” Sanders, who is supporting Biden, told PBS. “And that means talking about an economics program, which Biden has. It’s not as strong as I would like it—it’s not the Bernie Sanders program, despite what Trump will tell you. But it is a strong program that will improve the lives of many millions of people.”
Given the lead that Biden holds in the opinion polls, it can be argued that he must be doing something right. Still, Sanders’s point is a legitimate one. Even if focussing on the incumbent—a strategy that was on full display at the Democratic National Convention—is the best way to challenge a rogue President like Trump, it shouldn’t preclude Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, from emphasizing how their Administration would make things better for ordinary Americans that are struggling to get by. As the Democratic Party increasingly becomes the party of highly educated voters who are horrified by Trump’s daily outrages, it also needs to attract working-class voters who perhaps don’t follow politics as closely. I’m talking about working-class Black voters in places like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, working-class Hispanic voters in places like Florida and Nevada, and working-class white voters in places like western Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Members of the working class have borne the brunt of wage stagnation, globalization, technological change, the private health-care system, and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic. “They are looking for a leader who will make big changes in health care, fight for working people over big business, and unite the country to defeat the current economic and public-health crisis,” Stan Greenberg, the veteran Democratic pollster, wrote in an article for The American Prospect, last week. In this passage, Greenberg was referring specifically to white working-class voters, whom he has been studying in focus groups and through surveys. But he pointed out that economic concerns and anger at the political establishment also runs “deep into the Democratic base of Blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women, and millennials, too.”
As Sanders noted, the good news for Biden is that his policy plans do, in fact, have a good deal to offer working people of all races—especially compared to Trump’s platform, which is essentially bare in this area. The former Vice-President would raise taxes on the rich to finance programs targeted at those with low and moderate incomes in a number of different areas, including education, health care, housing, and Social Security. Taken individually, none of Biden’s proposals has the transformative appeal of Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, or Andrew Yang’s universal basic income. But if Congress passed Biden’s economic policy agenda, and it worked as designed, it would make life easier for countless working Americans who need a helping hand.
Here are some specifics. Targeting working parents who have kids under school age and are struggling to afford day care, Biden has proposed a national pre-K program for all children ages three and four. (Other rich countries, such as France and Germany, already have such a program.) For people nearing retirement age who can’t find an affordable health-care plan, Biden has pledged to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from sixty-five to sixty. For low-income families struggling to find an affordable place to live, he has promised to make rent subsidies more widely available by expanding the Section 8 federal-housing-voucher program. For young people who want to go to college but are worried about racking up student debt, he has pledged to eliminate tuition payments entirely at two-year community colleges and to eliminate tuition payments at four-year public colleges and universities for students from families that earn less than a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a year.
In budgetary terms, the sums involved in rolling out these and other Biden programs would be considerable. According to a new study by economists at the Wharton School, the Democrat’s education proposals alone would cost $1.9 trillion over ten years. All told, his economic plans would “raise $3.375 trillion in new tax revenue” between 2021 and 2030, “while increasing spending by $5.37 trillion,” the study says. On an annual basis, the proposed spending increase is equivalent to about 2.5 per cent of current G.D.P., or roughly twelve per cent of total federal spending.
You might ask where all this money would come from. A Biden Administration would raise most of it by reversing the tax cuts for corporations and high-income households that were enacted in the feed-the-rich tax bill that Trump and the Republicans pushed through in 2017, and also by raising some other taxes targeted at the wealthy. Under Biden’s plan, according to the Wharton study, households in the top one per cent of the income distribution would see their effective federal tax rate rise from 30.7 per cent to 37.4 per cent. Super-rich households—those in the top 0.1 per cent—would see their effective tax rates go from 30.6 per cent to forty-three per cent. For people in the bottom ninety-five per cent (those who make up to $282,663 a year), there wouldn’t be much of a change at all.
Biden gave a series of speeches back in July in which he laid out his economic agenda. And last week, in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, he unveiled a series of proposals to boost American manufacturing. But in this addled news climate, policy proposals rarely get the coverage they deserve in the venues that most voters rely on—television and online-news feeds. To break through the cacophony of Trump noise, Biden, Harris, and other Democrats need to be out there every day ballyhooing their spending plans, as well as other proposals that wouldn’t affect the federal budget but that would boost the budgets of working families.
The Biden-Harris ticket wants to guarantee all Americans twelve weeks of paid medical and family leave. It would increase the national minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, which would have a big impact on low-paid workers in places like Pennsylvania and Texas, where the hourly minimum is currently just $7.25; in Florida, where its $8.56; and in Ohio, where its $8.70. Biden’s agenda includes an expansion of home and community-based care for the elderly, and provisions to insure that, as the number of caregivers increases, they are well-paid and have the right to join a labor union. He has also vowed to strengthen labor laws and unions more broadly. Among other things, he supports the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed in 2019. Legislative changes of this type would take a while to have a macroeconomic impact. Over time, though, restoring some of the bargaining power that workers have lost in recent decades could help raise wages and reduce inequality.
Of course, Biden’s policy platform could be better. A couple of personal quibbles: it doesn’t address the self-dealing and greed of top corporate executives, which has been evident again during the pandemic; and it doesn’t adequately confront rising monopoly power, especially in the tech sector. But it contains a lot of other progressive proposals, and compared to the alternative—four more years of plutocracy thinly disguised as populism—it’s infinitely preferable. Between now and November 3rd, everyone associated with the Biden campaign, and, indeed, everyone who wants to see the back of Trump, should seize every opportunity to make this clear.