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The Women Powering Biden's Economy Are Rewriting The Course Of American History

From left: Chief Labor Department economist Janelle Jones, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers nominee Cecilia Rouse and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Department of Labor and Alex Wong/Getty Images
From left: Chief Labor Department economist Janelle Jones, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers nominee Cecilia Rouse and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Women and people of color are notoriously underrepresented in economics. Only 14% of full professors are women, and one survey found only 1.6% Black faculty in the economics departments of the 30 highest-ranked universities.

And yet, President Biden has managed to find several highly accomplished economists who are not just women but are also Black, and has placed them in top posts in his administration.

Many of the women are already starting to write a new chapter of U.S. economic history by shaping how the federal government is deploying trillions of dollars as part of the American Rescue Plan — one of the largest deployment of federal dollars into society ever.

Each of the women, to a fault, have backgrounds that reflect their interest in creating an economy that works for more people — especially the vulnerable working class, specifically Black people, Latinos and women — and they are unapologetic in pursuing policies to address these issues.

Some have broken barriers in their work and also in their current roles:

  • Cecilia Rouse is the first Black leader of the White House Council of Economic Advisers in its 75-year history.
  • Janet Yellen is the first female U.S. Treasury secretary in 232 years.
  • Janelle Jones is the first Black woman to be the chief economist at the Department of Labor, which was established in 1913.
  • The list goes on and on: Angela Hanks is counselor to the labor secretary, Heather Boushey and Martha Gimbel are also at the Council of Economic Advisers, and Joelle Gamble is special assistant to the president for economic policy.

    Many of the economists are giants in their fields, and several of them have focused their research on uncovering or understanding systemic failures. Their approach to economics is informed by their own work and personal experience, and collectively they're bringing a sense of urgency and focus on topics that have been ignored for years.

    Here's a snapshot of the barrier-breaking economic players in the administration, starting with the newest hire:

    Janelle Jones, chief economist at Labor Department
    / EPI
    Janelle Jones, chief economist at Labor Department

    Janelle Jones: 'We can't resort back to business as usual'

    Jones is among a group of younger economists conversant in the language of social media with sharp tweets that are accompanied with memes. Jones was just named the top economist at the Department of Labor, and in her short time in the role, she is already showing the agency a new style of writing that is peppered with BuzzFeed-style listicle headlines and charts that draw attention.

    A former economist at the Economic Policy Institute and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Jones last year coined what she called a new ideology "Black Women Best." She called for reorienting thinking by putting Black women first in pulling them out of the recession as a powerful tool to help the economy truly recover.

    She said: "If history has taught us anything, it's that Black people, particularly Black women, are among the last to recover from economic recessions, and the last to reap economic benefits during periods of recovery or growth."

    Her work has attracted attention, particularly at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has led to a new kind of reckoning.

    Last month, Jones wrote: "Among demographic groups, Black women experienced the steepest drop in labor force participation and have had the slowest job recovery since January 2020. ... We can course correct one of the worst economic downturns in U.S history for all by deliberately improving the economic outcomes of traditionally marginalized groups. We can't resort back to business as usual."

    Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
    Alex Wong / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

    Cecilia Rouse: The blind auditions by female musicians

    Rouse, who now holds one of the most powerful economic positions in the White House, has had a distinguished career in both government and academia, including as dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Her faculty profile says she was drawn to economics because it allows her to address social problems.

    Much of her work has centered on examining the forces that have held workers back — whether it's race, gender, poverty or education. Rouse's most famous work looked into why there were so few female musicians in the country's orchestras. She and her co-researchers looked at symphony orchestra hiring records from around the country and their research showed that women were more likely to be hired when they took part in blind auditions.

    In her confirmation hearing, Rouse has made her priorities clear: "As distressing as this pandemic has been, it is also an opportunity to rebuild better ... leaving no one vulnerable to fall through the cracks."

    Janet Yellen: Behind the smile, a radical economist

    Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary
    Win McNamee / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary

    At first glance, it would be hard for anyone to call Yellen a radical. Her silver bob cut and ready smile belie a steely determination.

    But her work as the first female chair of the Federal Reserve was nothing short of radical.

    The Fed has a dual mandate of maximum employment and keeping prices stable. But Yellen decided to put her thumb on the scale, by giving more weight to employment. She had already led the Fed to a goal of 2% inflation, breaking ranks with giants like Alan Greenspan, who served as Fed chair from the late 1990s to the 2000s, and who targeted an inflation rate of zero.

    In 2014, with the Great Recession in the rearview mirror and the U.S. economy improving, Yellen faced immense pressure to raise rates to keep the economy from overheating. But she saw that the benefit wasn't reaching enough people and too many were still unemployed. So she wasn't keen to tighten the screws and make borrowing more expensive by raising rates.

    Yellen even gave a speech in 2015 about her concerns about widening income inequality. In a hearing soon after, Yellen was chastised by several members of Congress for politicizing monetary policy.

    Then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney chided: "You're sticking your nose in places that you have no business to be."

    But Yellen held firm in that testy exchange, and even though she was interrupted several times, she completed her sentence: "All of my predecessors have talked about large important economic trends and problems affecting the country. ... I am entitled to do the same."

    Yellen also held firm on interest rates and kept them low for years, in hopes that it would encourage more businesses to hire. Yellen prevailed — setting the path for unemployment to hit a 50-year low in the years after — and today, the Federal Reserve continues her approach to monetary policy.

    Accepting the Biden nomination as the country's first female Treasury secretary in December, Yellen talked about her roots growing up in what she calls working-class Brooklyn: "I became an economist because I was concerned about the toll of unemployment on people, families and communities," she said. "And I've spent my career trying to make sure people can work and achieve the dignity and self-worth that comes with it."

    In the path of FDR and Lyndon Johnson?

    With the vision of this diverse group of economists driving policy, Biden hopes to secure his legacy and achieve a scale of change that matches huge moments in history.

    In his Democratic National Convention speech, the president invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in the Great Depression.

    "Nearly a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty and fear," Biden said. "FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail and he believed America could as well. And he did. And so can we."

    FDR is considered one of the most consequential presidents, and it was his responses to the challenges he faced that made him a defining figure in American history.

    FDR's New Deal introduced a variety of innovative policies to fix the catastrophic economy he inherited. It expanded the government's role by establishing social programs such as Social Security in a bid to ensure the benefits of the American economy were distributed more equally.

    Biden's approach is also reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, and its anti-poverty legislation.

    In a sense, Biden's plan is pursuing a Great Society Part II, with game-changing initiatives focused on gender, race, equity and children.

    In a departure from existing policy, Biden's plan provides many American parents an allowance of $250 a month for each child and $300 for kids younger than six, and even those with little or no income still qualify for the full amount.

    There is also billions of dollars set aside to help Black farmers, who have faced generations of systemic discrimination.

    One big critic: Larry Summers

    There are plenty of economists who are skeptical. One of the fiercest critics of the brand of economics espoused by the Biden is former Treasury secretary and former Harvard University president and economist Lawrence Summers, who says it comes with big risks.

    Summers was himself one of the architects of a relief plan during the last economic crisis, a plan that some would say was underwhelming in size. He had rejected his female colleague and economist Christina Romer's plan of $1.8 trillion that she calculated would be needed to fill the hole left by the financial crisis and its fallout.

    Summers also in a 2005 speech famously questioned women's aptitude, leading to much furor.

    Today, an entirely different ethos guides the team of overwhelmingly female economists, who have unleashed a set of programs that are rethinking and challenging traditional economics in the hopes of achieving lifting more boats.

    Whether they succeed is anyone's guess. And even though Summers said this in conclusion to his speech where he questioned women's aptitude, it could apply broadly: "I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong."

    Pallavi Gogoi is NPR's chief business editor.

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    As head of NPR's business desk, Pallavi Gogoi leads the network's coverage of the most essential financial, economic, technology and media stories of the day.