After the Trump years, how will Biden help the 140 million Americans in poverty?

After four punch-drunk years of Donald Trump, the weeks since the November presidential election have presented a chance, despite his machinations to overturn the result, to reflect on what might come next for the tens of millions of Americans struggling to get by. What lies around the corner after the departure of an administration that brought so much destruction matters to the lives of the least well-off and marginalised people?

President-elect Joe Biden sought to reassure people that he was on the case when he announced his top economic team last week. “Our message to everybody struggling right now is this: help is on the way,” he said, offering a steady economic hand to a weary public rattled by the virus and an unprecedented economic crisis.

Many people are simply so relieved that Biden and Harris won that they talk about “getting back to normal” after the chaos. That’s an understandable reaction given all that’s transpired. However, getting back to normal isn’t an option. Nor should it be the goal. When Trump took power, around 140 million Americans were either poor or on low incomes even without a pandemic – a staggering proportion.

For decades the wages of those at the top soared while paychecks for those at the bottom flatlined. Gender and racial income and wealth disparities endure. Despite widespread support for boosting minimum earnings, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t been increased since 2009. Roughly 60% of wealth in the US is estimated to be inherited. And, as if this wasn’t enough to contend with, in 2020 billionaire wealth surged past $1tn since the start of the pandemic. The Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) calculates that the wealth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos alone leapt by almost $70bn to a colossal $188.3bn as the year draws to a close.

Over the past four years I asked myself frequently what another term of the Trump wrecking ball would mean for the people at the sharp end of regressive policies and a reckless disregard for the most vulnerable in society. Thankfully, that is no longer the question. The question now is: after all the carnage, what next?

So far, indications are that Biden and his team recognise that as well as confronting the gargantuan challenges unleashed by Covid-19, longstanding inequities cannot be left unchecked. The presidential campaign was calibrated to highlight this, including around racial injustices. Overtures have been made, for example, on areas championed by progressives such as forgiving loan debt for many students and expanding access to Medicare. Biden has also pledged to strengthen unions and, well before the pandemic during his first campaign speech, endorsed increasing the federal minimum wage to $15.

Even in the face of unparalleled challenges – and while a lot rides on a Democratic win in the two Georgia Senate run-offs in January – Biden could and should “use all the tools” at a president’s disposal to shift the dial quickly, says Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the IPS. Examples include placing conditions on workers’ pay for companies bidding for federal contracts and leveraging the presidential “bully pulpit” to try to push proposals such as a minimum wage hike through the Senate.

There is also a genuine opportunity for the new administration to spearhead a concerted focus on policies affecting more than 61 million Americans who are disabled – a group all too often ignored in presidential campaigns and sidelined in policy. Biden’s disability plan makes for a comprehensive read. Off the bat, if the new administration takes steps to overturn the “abject neglect of disability rights enforcement” under Trump in areas ranging from education to housing it would be off to a good start, argues Rebecca Cokley, director of the disability justice initiative at the Center for American Progress.

The pandemic is the most pressing challenge facing the incoming administration. However, structural inequalities, the people lining up at food banks, the children going hungry or homeless, historic injustices and the out-of-control concentration of wealth, must also be priorities. Right now, the US at least has a chance to finally put some of this right. However in the UK, with the end of the Brexit transition period looming and the chancellor under pressure to fend off accusations that another dose of austerity isn’t on the way, it’s a whole different story. The lessons in both countries from past mistakes – ones that harm those most in need – must be learned.

• Mary O’Hara is a journalist and author. Her latest book, The Shame Game: Overturning the toxic poverty narrative, is published by Policy Press. She was named best foreign columnist 2020 by the Southern California Journalism Awards