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A 'Gray New Deal' to restore America

A 'Gray New Deal' to restore America
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President Biden's economic initiatives have been portrayed as an effort to protect the environment while propping up the economy, or as a Green New Deal. But they could just as easily be seen as an effort to address the costs and consequences of America’s aging population: a Gray New Deal. 

After all, America's working-age population hasn't been keeping pace with the growth of the elderly. Between 2010 and 2019 the population aged 65 and over expanded by more than one-third; the population aged 18 and under fell by more than a million; and fertility rates continued to fall — reaching record lows in 2019 before the onset of last year’s “pandemic baby bust.” The result is a potential mismatch between a rapidly growing elderly population in need of care and a slow-growing workforce capable of providing and paying for it. 

Biden's initiatives address this imbalance in three complementary ways. 

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First, they offer more support for senior citizens. This includes $400 billion for expanded home and community-based care for the elderly and people with disabilities, arguably the biggest single line-item in the recently unveiled American Jobs Plan. Helping seniors live well at home saves people from nursing homes, which is a huge cost burden on families. But Biden’s plan also includes investments in services – like high-speed internet and mass transit – that are universal by design but disproportionately beneficial to seniors. More than 20 percent of seniors don’t drive, according to the American Association of Retired People, and infrastructure and internet investments will help them keep their independence, order the goods and services they need and stay in touch with friends and family. 

Second, they offer more support for families. The pension and health care costs of an aging population place pressure on a slow-growing labor force. Biden’s Gray New Deal will enable young people to have more children who will eventually grow up to become taxpayers and family providers. The difference between “desired” and “achieved” fertility in the United States is high and growing, with both men and women reporting much smaller families than they’d like. While the sources of this “fertility gap” are controversial, they almost certainly include the direct and indirect costs of children: not just feeding, clothing, housing and healing them but paying for high-quality childcare or giving up work to provide it at home. Biden’s plan provides both better job prospects through stimulus measures, giving parents the confidence they need to start or add to their families, and direct support for children, a combination that will help more Americans afford the number of children they want.

The recent stimulus legislation began to make reproduction more practical by temporarily expanding the child tax credit and for the first time making it available to poor parents who lack income from work. The predicted results include increased fertility and decreased child poverty. If the Democrats succeed in turning this temporary stopgap into a sustainable part of the tax code, moreover, the U.S. will have achieved a “policy revolution” that parallels the Social Security Act of 1935 — a guaranteed family income akin to the children’s allowances available in other high-income countries. But that’s not all. Last week’s infrastructure plan includes more than $100 billion for schools and childcare facilities, all of which should make it easier to raise children. And the president has promised an “American Family Plan” designed to push further in this direction in the weeks ahead. 

This brings us to the third leg of Biden’s stool, which is that measures like these are designed not only, or even primarily, to allow parents to achieve their fertility goals in the short run but to ensure that their children have the skills they need to promote individual and collective prosperity in the long run; that is, to augment the skill as well as the size of the U.S. labor force.

Why does this matter? Because the pending demographic crisis is produced not simply, or even primarily, by a lack of young people but by their lack of training and education. In the inequitable school system we’ve created, a few students get ahead and many fall behind — thereby contributing far less to the “general welfare” than they otherwise might and reproducing the cycle of disadvantage that’s been tearing the country apart for decades. But by putting money into schools and training institutions, building workforce development programs and expanding access to community colleges, we can combat this waste and, in so doing, ensure that the working-age population of the future is as productive as possible.    

If this sounds utopian, it isn’t. On the contrary, it’s all there in President Biden’s proposals. And it’s not inherently partisan either. Republicans are at least in theory committed to retirement security and support for American families. The devil is in the details, but this should by no means prevent the adoption of meaningful legislation. After all, the vast majority of House and Senate Republicans voted for the Social Security Act, the cornerstone of the original New Deal. There’s no reason not to offer the same bipartisan support to a Gray New Deal today.  

Andrew Schrank is Olive C. Watson Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Jack A. Goldstone is Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr., Chair Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University.