With both the American Rescue Plan and the introduction of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, Pres. Biden has launched himself to FDR status within the first three months of his presidency. But if the Biden administration wants to give teeth to its “good-paying jobs” promise, it will include a higher minimum wage in the initiative. Given a unique cultural period, sparked by the pandemic, the country should act fast to secure this win for working Americans.
As social scientists, we’ve noticed a change in how our cognitive biases are working. Since the pandemic’s onset, Americans’ biases have started shifting from doing what’s best for ourselves – hoarding peanut butter, skipping masks – to considering others’ needs in our decision-making. Mask-wearing, for example, jumped a full 20 percent between June and August 2020, by both liberals and conservatives, young and old. By last October, 90 percent wore masks. True, some held out, saying it was “their American right” not to, but at least 60 percent have reported wearing masks for the purpose of protecting themselves and others. The majority of us seem to have arrived at a deeper sense of community.
Indeed, as my colleagues and I have noticed and written about in a forthcoming paper, COVID may be altering our perception of the distance between “us” and “them,” with more of “them” entering “our” circle because now we all face a common threat. Millions in this country lost a relative or friend to COVID. This new commonality – loss or the fear of it – should make Americans more open to necessary change that alleviates suffering, COVID-related or otherwise. And in fact, the numbers show that to be true. A full 76 percent of the country, across party lines, backed the COVID relief bill. Support for Black Lives Matter peaked during the Floyd protests when Americans were deep in the pandemic. And as of August, 72 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage, up from 66 percent the previous February, before the pandemic hit. Perhaps most surprising of all, during this same time frame, Republican support for the reform jumped from 48 to 62 percent. In just six months.
Our collective grief has forced us to face glaring inequalities – and to support essential changes that better our lives.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time national disasters have altered the way our ingrained biases play out. The Great Depression redefined “normal” by exposing Americans to a threat previously unfathomable. Before, most hadn’t experienced extreme poverty. After, nearly everyone knew someone who’d lost a job, savings, even a life. The stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing events shifted Americans’ collective understanding of how everything can change in an instant – and of how we need a collective safety net.
In the Depression’s aftermath, Congress passed the New Deal—the most comprehensive socioeconomic reform at the time— providing millions with economic relief and benefits. The threat of poverty had become real for most, and the country acted. That recovery plan has since shaped modern approaches to economic downturns, including the latest one caused by COVID.
We’ve just passed a monumental COVID rescue plan, with offerings mostly addressing Americans’ immediate needs. But while this pandemic will end, some of the struggles and inequities COVID made so apparent will continue for millions long after they get vaccinated. That’s why Congress should move forward now – while support is still high among Americans, whatever our party – to pass a strong minimum wage law.
The sad fact is that our biases may well snap back once things become more “normal,” once the usual social distractions reemerge to compete for our interest. Let’s act now and not wait to find out.