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The proposals to tackle racial equity included in Biden's spending bill are at risk

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Biden came into office promising to transform the nation's economy into one that is more just. Now, as Congress haggles over the size and scope of Biden's proposals to expand the social safety net, his equity pledge hangs in the balance, as NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have a real chance to deliver real equity across the board to everyone - Black, white, Latino, Asian American.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Equity is something President Biden talks about a lot.

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BIDEN: Good jobs, good schools, affordable housing, clean air, clean water.

RASCOE: He says the goal is to address some of the discrimination that has prevented people of color from building wealth in the same way many white Americans have. This is not something that can change overnight, but Biden's legacy on this issue could be defined by what Congress does in the next few weeks. So far, advocates for reform say Biden's been saying the right things.

JESSICA FULTON: It's obviously not sufficient, but it is a very necessary first step to making a difference.

RASCOE: That's Jessica Fulton from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on Black Americans.

FULTON: The fact that the federal government acknowledged that we need to tackle this idea of racial equity in government, like, that's actually a very big deal.

RASCOE: She's an economist, so she likes the way the Labor Department is using data to look at racial dynamics. Along with the shift in rhetoric and analysis, there has been some action. For example, the Agriculture Department has a $6 billion program to help small and disadvantaged farmers. But the centerpiece has really been the child tax credit that goes out automatically to families every month. Heather Boushey, top economic adviser to Biden, says the money is making a huge difference.

HEATHER BOUSHEY: The policies as a part of the American Rescue Plan have lifted over 400,000 Black children out of poverty this summer alone.

RASCOE: But that could come to an end. Biden wants to make it permanent. Some Democrats are not so sure. It's on hold in Congress right now, along with other programs that would help people in tough financial situations, like paid family leave and universal pre-K. Democrats are looking at significantly scaling back the cost and longevity of those policies. The package started out at $3.5 trillion, but moderate lawmakers want to slash that number in half. The negotiations are making Rakeen Mabud nervous. Mabud is the chief economist at Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive think tank.

RAKEEN MABUD: Every single dollar that's subtracted from that top line number is one less dollar for the investments that are necessary to move towards a more equitable economy. And frankly, we can't afford not to do these types of investments.

RASCOE: Some lawmakers want to use means testing to cut back on cost, basically cutting off these benefits for people who make more money. There's also been talk of requiring people to have a job to receive the child tax credit. Progressive advocates argue these sorts of conditions are out of step with the equity vision that Biden has put forth.

KATE BAHN: Means testing by definition makes benefits less accessible.

RASCOE: Kate Bahn is with the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Bahn says that means testing does not save the government much money and makes programs less effective.

BAHN: One thing that people who are proponents of means testing do not often acknowledge is that it has a huge administrative overhead. That makes it really an inefficient way to operate a program.

RASCOE: The White House has not ruled out means testing as a way to reach a compromise. White House adviser Boushey says all of these programs are supposed to be aimed at the families who need the most help.

BOUSHEY: But I think there's a way - you know, if we have the right basket of policies, that we're focused on meeting the needs of families across the spectrum, I think there's a way that we can still make this work.

RASCOE: A question that remains is, what will be in that basket of policies? Congress is still working on that.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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