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Biden Administration's Plans For Improving U.S. Economy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The COVID spike rammed through the heart of the economy in December. Evidence came in the form of jobs numbers out today. The U.S. lost 140,000 last month, the first decline since the spring - a grim situation for the next president to walk into and one his team is already thinking about.

Cecilia Rouse is President-elect Joe Biden's pick to head the Council of Economic Advisers. It's a group she's served on before - last time was during the Obama administration. And the economy - it was in turmoil then too.

CECILIA ROUSE: In 2008, we had an economic crisis which was caused by a problem in the financial sector. And this time, we have an economic crisis which is completely caused by a global pandemic and, therefore, is at the mercy of a public health crisis.

CORNISH: Now, in doing some reading on this, I heard you say that at the time, you all were terrified - that's the term you use. How are you entering this now?

ROUSE: Right now what we recognize is that Americans are suffering. Households, businesses are suffering. And so what we understand this time is that we need to be providing relief to households, businesses, state and local governments to help them get to the other side of the pandemic. That's not the end of the road. It's important that as we do get to the other side that we build and economy that includes all Americans and therefore is strong because it's addressing the inequality that's been laid bare by the pandemic.

CORNISH: In order to bring back the economy, the pandemic, as you said, has to be controlled. So should there be nationwide actions to shut down the country so that the pandemic can be controlled? I mean, can the economy actually recover without temporary economic pain?

ROUSE: What we do know is that in order for us to have the pandemic under control, people have to stay safe, which hit some sectors harder than others. So there will be some economic pain as we get through this pandemic safely.

What we know we need to do is to support households and businesses and those businesses that we know have been disproportionately affected. For example, if we look at the December employment report that was just released this morning, in the leisure and hospitality sector, it lost nearly half a million jobs. That was a big blow to workers in that industry. In fact, with the exception of March and April of 2020, that was the largest employment decline in that sector in history. So we need to - we know that we need to support those workers and support those businesses to help them weather this pandemic safely and to be able to get to the other side intact.

CORNISH: As you brought up, almost 500,000 job losses in December were in leisure and hospitality, people who work in bars and restaurants. And so much of the story of the pandemic has been about low-wage workers bearing the brunt of this compared to high-wage workers. As an economist, what is your position on how to help low-wage workers specifically? What, to you, are ideas or solutions that work?

ROUSE: So right now we know we need to support them, so that is some of the direct relief. We also know that the unemployment extensions of the unemployment insurance are very important. There are other - eviction moratoriums and help with back pay for rent. Either of those components are going to be very important.

As we come through this pandemic, though, we know that we need to support some of those low-wage workers. People will need to have jobs that pay and allow them to support their families. We know that paid sick leave, paid family leave is very important to allow them to both be productive workers and take care of their families. So coming out of this recovery in particular, we need to ensure that all Americans can be productive workers and being able to support their families.

CORNISH: So much of the conversation around what happened in 2008 and 2009 was the idea that the help went to, quote-unquote, "the banks." They got the support and that many average people felt left behind. How do you ensure that what the president-elect does next doesn't kind of fall into that same perception?

ROUSE: That's an excellent point, and this administration is really committed to ensuring that the policies that it promotes promote everybody and bring everybody back into the economic activity, back into the labor market and that we all benefit from the growth and the economic recovery. Some of that is paying attention to where the federal dollars are being spent, identifying those places where those who have better connections - larger banks versus smaller businesses that might be better connected - don't just get to the front of the line but that the smaller businesses are able to maybe actually have a priority.

CORNISH: Cecilia Rouse, I just have one other question 'cause I know you have some specialty in this area, and we've been doing a lot of reporting. Women have had to exit the workforce in, frankly, shocking numbers during this pandemic. What is the advice, I think, you - or how do you think about providing a path for them to reenter the workforce, solutions that those of us who are not economists may not be familiar with?

ROUSE: Well, I think one of the most important ways that we get women back into the labor market is to get our schools reopened. I think it's been underappreciated the role that schools have played in taking care of our children and allowing women to leave the household and to participate in the labor force outside of the home. And so I think the first job, again, coming back to the pandemic is to reopen our schools safely so that our kids can be back in school and so that women can once again participate in the labor market.

CORNISH: Cecilia Rouse, thank you so much for your time.

ROUSE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.