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Joe Biden can be the president for middle class workers and all races

Joe Biden can be the president for middle class workers and all races
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Joe BidenJoe BidenHoyer: House will vote on COVID-19 relief bill Friday Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears MORE is from Scranton. He is a man of the middle class. His political persona is, and always has been, that of a guy who remembers where he came from and who he is for. Even Kayleigh McEnany, before she became press secretary for Donald Trump, described him as a “man of the people” who would resonate with “middle class voters.” She was right. His appeal to middle class voters proved essential to his victory this year, notably in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Biden founded his policy agenda on his unwavering belief in the central importance of the middle class as the engine of the economy. As he said in his victory address, “I sought this office to restore the soul of America and to rebuild the backbone of this country.” As vice president to Barack Obama, he led the Middle Class Task Force. In remarks at the Brookings Institution he said, “I think the reason for our social and political stability in no small part has been because we have had our strong and growing middle class. A strong middle class also breeds opportunity. The poor have some light. They look at it like there could be a way.”   

Biden also becomes president at this moment of profound reckoning on the issue of racial justice. Most of his supporters have a positive view of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most also cited racial justice issues as important to their vote. Biden pledged that as president he would seek to “achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country.” As my think tank colleague Andre Perry has written, “Biden has an obligation to deliver an agenda that addresses past and present racism.”

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Balance between an agenda focused on reviving the middle class and one focused on fixing racial injustices will be one of the main political tensions of the new administration. But the tradeoff between might not be as sharp as it seems. In the 1970s, when Biden entered the Senate, the middle class was mostly white. Now just 59 percent of middle class workers are white, compared to 84 percent four decades ago in America. With a much more diverse middle class, improving the lives of the middle class and pursuing racial justice are now intertwined goals for public policy.

The earned income tax credit assists one in five Black women more than double the share of white women in the economy. Its expansion would lift the middle class and narrow racial divides in income. Building retirement savings with the proposed tax credit of Biden will help the middle class as a whole, but especially Black and Hispanic workers, who tend to have less than half the retirement savings as white workers. Investing in community colleges, especially with programs to improve retention and completion, is aimed at the middle class. But community colleges also serve students of color, so it would narrow the racial divides in education.

Middle class problems  are now problems of all races. It also means that systemic barriers to opportunity that face vulnerable groups are middle class problems. Middle class incomes do not translate into middle class wealth for Black and Hispanic families. The children of middle class Black and Hispanic parents attend weaker schools. Black men face institutional racism with public institutions, such as the criminal justice system. Black people face twice the risk of falling down the income ladder. Reparations can be seen not only as a restitution and road to national healing, but as part of a plan to bolster and stabilize the Black middle class.

Biden has a desire to build a strong middle class which is not at odds with the moral demands of racial justice if he considers the effects of both the economy and diversity to establish opportunity. We need a strong middle class. But that will also take a strong Asian middle class, a strong Hispanic middle class, and most certainly a strong Black middle class.

Richard Reeves is a senior fellow for economic studies and director for the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at Brookings Institution in Washington.