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No true economic growth without true equality, Cecilia Rouse says

Biden’s top economist favors ‘all hands on deck’ approach

Cecilia Rouse, center, the first Black woman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, says Biden administration policies seek to include “those communities that have historically not been included in federal investments.”
Cecilia Rouse, center, the first Black woman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, says Biden administration policies seek to include “those communities that have historically not been included in federal investments.” (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden tapped Cecilia Rouse to chair his Council of Economic Advisers and tasked her, the first Black woman to hold the job, with seeking to advance racial equity in his economic policies.

Rouse, previously the dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and a member of President Barack Obama’s economic council, recently joined CQ Roll Call’s Equal Time podcast to discuss her plans. An edited transcript follows.

Q. We recently had a disappointing jobs report for April, in which the 266,000 jobs created was only a quarter of what economists expected. Critics are saying that people are opting not to work because the enhanced unemployment benefits of $300 per week that Congress in March extended to September are too generous. What’s your response?

A. First of all, it’s really important to keep in mind that one should not put too much stake in any one month’s employment number. These are estimates. What’s important is to look at averages over time and to look at trends. So there may be a revision to our estimate of the number of jobs that were created in April.

The second point is what the president said: No one said that this would be easy or steady. And the reason for that is because not only was this a historically bad recession with 22 million jobs lost in the course of the last year, but it was a recession not caused by a problem in the economy. It was a recession caused by a pandemic, and that meant that the economy is at the mercy of the virus. We knew that coming back was going to happen in fits and starts. It’s one thing to power down an economy, it’s another to get it started again. 

Q. The Black community was hit hard by the virus and the economic downturn. How do you design policies that target Black communities? 

A. So the the policies that were embedded from the beginning of the pandemic with enhanced unemployment insurance benefits have been very important for all workers. The American Rescue Plan expands the child tax credit, which is also now refundable. So that’s a really important additional resource that goes to families that are poor and helps them pay the bills.

We’ve had rental assistance, mortgage forbearance, student loan forbearance. We know that just getting to back to where we were in February 2020 is not enough. There were racial inequalities in the employment rate even then. That’s the foundation for the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. We want to make sure that those communities that have historically not been included in federal investments are included. We want to make sure we’re investing in our children with universal pre-K. We want to make sure we are investing in our college students with historic investments in historically Black colleges and universities and free community college. 

Q. Do you expect pushback that these policies favor one group over another?

A. We understand that if the United States is truly going to have the kind of economic growth that we are going to need to have and the kind of innovation that we’re going to need to have to continue being the premier economy that maintains our competitive edge worldwide, we are going to need to tackle things like climate change and other existential threats.

And in order to do that, we have to have all hands on deck. Yes, there may be some pushback that these are not the kinds of investments that the United States has traditionally made. But we also know that we have been having increasing income inequality, increasing wealth inequality, that our growth rate has slowed, and largely that is due to the fact that we’ve not been making the kinds of public sector investments that we know are important.

Q. Women have lost their jobs at disproportionate rates. How will women, and especially Black women, be made whole coming out of this pandemic?

A. Well, will any of us be made whole coming out of the pandemic? We’ve had a lost year, especially our children, who’ve been out of school, and the largely women caretakers, who had to step back in order to help them even though they really would have preferred to be in the workforce.

This is the foundation for the American Families Plan, that we have to help families make those kinds of decisions. This is not about insisting that women join the labor force, as some people have characterized it, but providing the kinds of pre-school and child support the families need. So while I don’t believe we can make women whole, I do believe that we can recognize that we need to have everybody in the labor force who wants to work.

Q. You’re the first Black woman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers. How often are you the only woman in the room? The only Black person? Have things changed?

A. I can tell you that the White House feels very different than it did even when I was there under President Obama and certainly under President Clinton, who had many talented women, many talented people of color. But this feels even one step further than that. That said, I’m an economist. The economics profession is not the most diverse. But I got to tell you that this economic team and this White House feels very diverse. 

Q. How did growing up in Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. affect you?

A. My parents believed strongly in education. They grew up during the Depression. They grew up in largely segregated Ohio and Indiana. They believed deeply that it was an education that afforded them a better life, but they saw the great injustice of our country. My father was an astrophysicist. My mother was a social worker, and between the two of them, I felt very much that I wanted in my life to address social problems.

Q. So did you see a continuum when you saw those streets again filled last year with the Black Lives Matter protests?

A. Absolutely, it was such a moment. For me, what it reflected was that we have come a long way and yet we have so much further to go. I would not be where I am today except for standing on the shoulders of my parents. But I also recognize that for my daughters there’s so much more work to be done to really have Blacks, Hispanics, have all of us really, be part of what is the project of the United States, which is where we have true equality for all people.

Q. Do you think we will reach equity in our lifetimes?

A. I’m not so confident that that will literally happen. This is a moment where we will make the next great leap forward. That’s part of the reason I joined the Biden administration. I saw this as a president who truly had the values to try to make this happen. He was surrounded by a team who really wanted to make the kinds of investments in our lower income communities, especially for African Americans and Native Americans.