Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | April 13
April 13, 2021
Today, the administration issued a proclamation on Black Maternal Health Week. It noted that Black American mothers die from pregnancy-related complications at two to three times the rates of White, Hispanic, Asian American, and Pacific Islander women, no matter what their income or education levels. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris declared their commitment to “building a health care system that delivers equity and dignity to Black, Indigenous, and other women and girls of color.”
There has been talk lately about President Biden assuming the mantle of Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who piloted the nation through the Great Depression and World War II. There is a lot to that. Biden is enthusiastically embracing the idea that the government has a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure. That ideology has been on the ropes since voters elected President Ronald Reagan, who argued that the government pioneered by Roosevelt smothered business growth and stifled individualism by levying taxes for programs that Washington bureaucrats thought would benefit the nation.
Since he took office, Biden has used the government to help ordinary Americans. He began by ramping up coronavirus vaccines at an astonishing rate, and then got through Congress the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, designed to rebuild the economy after the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. Now he is turning to the American Jobs Plan, another massive package designed to remake American infrastructure as it creates high-paying jobs, just as FDR’s New Deal did.
Biden is clearly trying to undermine the Republican mantra that government is inefficient, and he is succeeding. His own chief of staff, Ron Klain, has made it a point to compare the two men.
But an article by Laura Barron-Lopez, Alex Thompson, and Theodoric Meyer in Politico begs to differ. Based on an interview with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), the piece makes the argument that Biden is far more President Harry Truman than FDR. Unlike FDR, who constantly had to compromise with white southern Democrats to get his measures through Congress and thus had to back off on issues of racial justice, Truman worked to advance civil rights in the U.S. More like Truman than FDR, Biden has focused on addressing racial equity in his response to the various crises he has taken on in his first days in office.
To my mind, though, what jumps out about Biden and Harris is not their focus on either jobs or Black Americans, but rather their attention to the needs of children and mothers. Even before the pandemic, 21.4 million American women lived in poverty, as did nearly 11 million children, about 14.4% of kids under the age of 18.
The American Rescue Plan increased the Child Tax Credit from $2000 to $3600 for children under age 6 and $3000 for other children under age 18, offering monthly payments immediately, in advance of the 2022 tax filing season. The measure also provided $15 billion in expanded childcare assistance, and it increased food benefits (SNAP) by 15%.
Experts estimated that the American Rescue Plan could cut child poverty in the U.S. by more than half.
The administration’s American Jobs Plan continues the focus on children and their mothers as it sets out to shore up the caregiving economy. The coronavirus pandemic hit women particularly hard as women, particularly women of color, left the workforce to care for children when childcare centers closed. Women have lost 5.4 million jobs, nearly a million more than men. The American Jobs Plan would invest $400 billion in the caregiving economy; $137 billion in schools, early learning centers, and community colleges; $111 billion in clean drinking water; and $621 billion in transportation.
FDR tried to shore up the nuclear family, headed by a man—usually a White man—enabling him to support a wife and children. Truman nodded toward including men of color in that vision. But Biden and Harris are recentering American society on children and on their mothers, giving mothers the power to support their children regardless of their marital status. Theirs is a profound reworking of American society, much more in keeping with what has always been our reality despite our mythological focus on an independent man and his family.
The crisis in Black maternal health is not new; a 2017 report from the LA Times revealed that maternal death rates more than doubled between 1987 and 2013, with Black women suffering in the highest percentages. But it is hard to imagine any previous president making it a priority. That Biden does suggests that his vision of rebuilding America is not that of FDR or Truman, but something entirely original.