The oath has been sworn. The long, painful transition is complete. Now President Joe Biden has his work cut out for him.
Among his tasks: tackling the raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans and 5,500 Wisconsinites; weathering a recession that has surged in recent weeks as the virus continues to spread; slowing the climate change crisis worsened by President Donald Trump’s more than 100 regulation rollbacks; reducing income inequality; and addressing systemic racism.
Biden plans to quickly introduce measures intended to help Americans through those issues. Here’s how Wisconsin could be affected.
The incoming president last week laid out a $1.9 trillion relief package that he plans to promptly bring to Congress, though it’s likely to face hurdles since Republicans can still filibuster measures and force Biden to find 60 Senate votes instead of 50. Biden also plans to quickly issue numerous executive actions aimed at everything from reversing Trump’s most regressive policies to reforming the criminal justice system.
National vaccine plan could help Wisconsin’s poor rollout
One of the most integral parts of Biden’s plan would be $400 billion dedicated to fighting the pandemic, including $20 billion allocated to a national vaccination program. He has vowed to get 100 million people vaccinated within his first 100 days.
Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout has gotten off to a rocky start, leading many Repubican politicians to lob vitriolic statements toward Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and his administration. The state has one of the slowest vaccine deployments in the Midwest, in part because of short federal supply that has led to Wisconsin receiving far fewer doses than first promised.
Biden’s plan focuses on hiring community health workers, increasing COVID-19 testing, and opening more vaccination sites, including in rural areas where demand is strong.
To mitigate the ongoing threat until enough vaccinations are delivered, Biden’s plan would mandate masks in federal properties and also give $130 billion to schools to help them safely hold in-person classes.
Unemployment help and income inequality
The president-elect also plans to send $1,400 stimulus checks to Americans—$600 less than he initially proposed—and give $400 more per week to Americans on unemployment. The first major federal COVID-19 relief package, passed last March, included $1,200 checks and an additional $600 per week for the unemployed. The $600 unemployment boost expired, and the most recent federal package partly restored it, setting the boost at $300 per week.
New unemployment insurance claims in Wisconsin fell gradually over the course of 2020 after surpassing 50,000 weekly claims for four weeks straight when the pandemic first hit, according to state data filed with the federal government. By September, weekly claims were down to about 12,000. From July to September, the average individual income in Wisconsin plummeted by 14.5%, prompted by continuing unemployment and the expiration of the $600 federal boost.
At the end of the summer, a new virus surge came and Wisconsin’s unemployment claims rapidly increased, surpassing 20,000 in the first week of December, the highest number of initial claims since the last week of July. The first two weeks of 2021 have retained similar numbers, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.
The state has not yet released the unemployment rate for December, but the increased weekly claims indicate the rate will be higher than the 5% seen in November.
Included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan is a measure to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, more than twice the current rate of $7.25, which has been in place since 2009. While 20 states raised their minimum wage on Jan. 1, Wisconsin’s minimum wage has not increased beyond the federal rate and is lowest in the Upper Midwest (along with Iowa). Illinois has raised its minimum hourly wage to $11.00, Minnesota to $10.08, and Michigan to $9.65.
Meanwhile, the state’s median household income has remained stagnant since 1995 when adjusted for inflation. A 2017 Wisconsin Budget Project study on wealth inequality found the state’s top 1% saw their collective earnings more than double from 1979 to 2014, while the bottom 99% saw their wealth grow just 57%.
The trajectory Trump put the country on endangers both Wisconsin’s tourism industry as winters shorten and warm weather reduces water quality in summer, and public health as severe weather events change the physical environment and higher temperatures lead to more tick-borne illnesses and drought.
Since 1950, Wisconsin’s climate has become 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit hotter and the southern half of the state has gotten 15-20% more precipitation, according to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI).
Without intervention, that trend will continue for the foreseeable future, according to WICCI projections. Average year-round temperatures are projected to rise another 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation is predicted to increase by 5% by 2060.
Biden campaigned on a promise to “reverse all of the damage Trump has done [and] go further and faster” on his first day in office. He vowed to put the US “on an irreversible path” to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
These systemic injustices were on full display last summer following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.
A Saturday memo from Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said Biden will “take significant early actions” to fight racial injustices and reform the criminal justice system between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1. The memo did not get into specifics.
Biden campaigned on reducing incarceration rates. His official platform said “no one should be incarcerated for drug use alone.” He advocated for “redemption and rehabilitation” for formerly incarcerated people.
Further, Biden plans to greatly expand immigration by providing an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Such a proposal is a reversal of Trump’s staunchly anti-immigrant policies. Legal immigration fell by about 50% under Trump, and the president also cut the maximum number of refugees allowed into the US to just 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year. The US capped refugees at 110,000 for the 2017 fiscal year, President Barack Obama’s last year in office.
There are about 300,000 immigrants in Wisconsin, according to the American Immigration Council. About half of those are naturalized citizens. Roughly a quarter of the state’s immigrants, or 75,000, are undocumented.
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