Despite the glaring polarization in our country today, we all want security, good health and the opportunity to succeed. The challenge is overcoming the differences amplified by the social and economic disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is needed now to heal a deeply divided America is for President-elect Joe Biden to build a sense of social solidarity. There is an opportunity to create new economic policies for a healthier America and a social compact in which we can all value equity.
Our country’s diversity is driven by the population growth primarily of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders but also of Black people and Native Americans. Taken together, this is an inherently young population. At the same time, 78 million baby boomers, primarily non-Hispanic white people, are becoming senior citizens. The electoral clout of older voters must now align with the growing influence of younger and ethnically diverse voter populations. Added to these demographic pressures are debates about immigration and how to address the declining portion of U.S.-born populations.
Throughout history, demographic transitions have created distrust and conflict, but ultimately acceptance. We see the distrust and conflict today in the discomfort between rural and suburban populations, especially in regions like the Southeast and Midwest that are now facing an influx of both legal and undocumented immigrants.
Alongside these tensions are deep systemic problems that have built up over time. During the Great Depression, the New Deal programs and private investment in public enterprises helped promote economic recovery. But since the last great period of economic prosperity — between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s — we have allowed deep disparities to seep in based on income, gender, race and ethnicity, all leading to deep resentments and insecurities. In the 1980s a confluence of factors left large segments of the population vulnerable and financially insecure, and partisan politics led to a growing distrust of the public sector’s responsibility to redress these inequities.
A 2020 Pew Research Center poll found that 61% of Americans (78% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans) feel there is too much inequality. Although only 42% of respondents view this issue as the next administration’s highest priority, affordable health care is the top priority and is directly related to having enough family income to make ends meet.
We must once again design a new social contract. One that gives a modicum of employment, income, health and retirement security. This is not about socialism or welfare but about assuring all Americans that they have access to basic health care coverage, a minimum income in old age, useful jobs even if federally provided, control of escalating prescription drug costs, and caregiver supports for those caring for older parents and disabled children.
Specifically, this entails crafting a massive federal infrastructure spending bill — akin to a Marshall Plan — that creates more jobs, helps small businesses, emphasizing green industry as well as the hardest hit health and senior care sectors.
We also need a commitment to expand cost-effective long-term care services and supports. This means incentives for a home care work force that matches the growing demand. We also need a substantial financial investment (e.g., Biden’s proposed $2.6 trillion) that would mitigate the effects of a possible double-dip recession. In the short term, however, while a plan along these lines would probably increase payroll taxes on the wealthiest Americans and require reductions in other government programs, it is clear that the health and social benefits far outweigh the costs.
The consequences of the pandemic, the economic recession and the tensions with diversity and immigration justify that it is time to renew a social contract and strengthen the thin fabric of our country’s motto “one out of many” that has maintained our civic stability, as well as our diversity and differences.
Jacqueline L. Angel is the Wilbur J. Cohen professor of health and social policy and a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin.
Juan Fernando M. Torres-Gil is a professor and director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.