Wally Adeyemo is the deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech was given in Memphis, in support of sanitation workers on strike for safer working conditions and better pay. Dr. King recognized that economic opportunity was inextricably linked to civil rights and had come to Memphis as part of his broader Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice. His approach was rooted in a belief that ending racial inequality was impossible without economic equity and that racism holds back economic growth for everyone.
As we approach both the second anniversary of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on Saturday — and the 55th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, it is worth considering why economic equity is so central to President Joe Biden’s economic strategy. It is part of an economic agenda that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called “modern supply-side economics” — expanding our nation’s economic capacity by investing in its human capital, labor supply, public infrastructure, and sustainability — especially in underserved communities.
The Biden-Harris administration has spent the last two years making exactly these kinds of investments. The historic gains our economy has made over the last two years lend support to our economic strategy of unlocking the unrealized potential of marginalized Americans to build an economy that works for everyone.
When President Biden took office, our country faced its greatest economic challenge in generations. One of our key objectives was to prevent economic scarring. That’s the long-term, permanent economic damage from shocks like job loss or eviction that prevents people and households fully getting back on their feet. It also ultimately holds back overall growth as those affected are prevented from reaching their potential.
This started with policies like the Advance Child Tax Credit, which under the Rescue Plan offered monthly payments to families and helped lift 3.5 million children out of poverty. In addition, actions to prevent evictions such as the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which provides rental payment support to families at risk of eviction, contributed to the prevention of more than 1.3 million evictions during the pandemic.
Last year, I met a woman named Diamond who lost her job due to the pandemic — and nearly lost her home. But instead, federal eviction-prevention funds kept a roof over her head, allowed her to enroll in training for a new career, and helped keep her daughter in the same school. This assistance did more than prevent the worst-case outcome — it helped unlock new opportunity for Diamond and her daughter.
Expanding our labor force is another area where efforts to support communities of color and other underserved communities is helping to unleash economic gains for all Americans. Today, employers across numerous industries report that they are struggling with a labor shortage. We have already made great strides to bring more workers into the labor force. But even so, giving more Americans in communities of color and rural areas the ability to access strong employment opportunities would benefit the entire U.S. economy by both addressing the labor shortage and expanding our economic capacity.
President Biden’s policies have sought to address this challenge head-on. Last year, I visited Orlando, Florida, where the mayor took me on a tour of a workforce training center funded by the President’s American Rescue Plan. And last month, I visited Spelman College, a historically Black college in Atlanta, which will be a recipient of new Satcher grants that will create opportunities to enter the cybersecurity field at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, helping to fill a gap of more than 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs nationwide.
Finally, the Biden administration is building the physical and digital infrastructure needed for all Americans to participate and compete in the 21st century economy. There is no better example of this than the more than $75 billion we are providing to bring reliable, high-speed internet to all Americans. Expanding access to high-speed internet will be the electrification of the 21st century, bringing opportunity to regions that have long faced barriers to full economic participation.
The benefits of this effort will be particularly powerful in underserved communities. In dense urban areas, Black households are twice as likely to lack high-speed internet as white households. And across the country, at least 17% of rural Americans lack access to fixed broadband, compared to 1 percent of Americans in urban areas. The investments we are making will close this gap for good and ensure all Americans have the internet access needed to thrive and compete in today’s economy.
For too long, racism and discrimination have limited the ability of underserved communities to fully contribute to our civic and economic advancement. It is worth recalling that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not only about civil rights; it was delivered as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which explicitly recognized the connection between economic and racial equity. The only way to make Dr. King’s dream a reality is to continue our work building an economy that works for everyone.