During the Georgia runoff elections for the Senate in January, both Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock campaigned on a promise to secure large stimulus checks for Americans. With Democrats in control of the Senate, they assured voters, Congress would increase the $600 stimulus checks to $2,000 per person, a move that was blocked twice by Senate Republicans. But first they had to be sent to the Senate.
The pledge worked. Both men were elected, handing Democrats narrow control of both chambers of Congress, along with a Democratic president. The party promised bold action: $2,000 stimulus checks now to help people survive the pandemic and a $15 minimum wage to raise living standards long afterward. Democrats need to get both done quickly to boost both the economy and their own political fortunes.
It’s not going to be easy to make good on those promises. Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democratic senators, has already poured cold water on the idea of $2,000 stimulus checks, saying at first that he was “absolutely” opposed to them and later clarifying that he would only support the checks if they were narrowly targeted to those in need and those who would use them, not save them.
Manchin may be forgetting, of course, that the most recent set of stimulus checks were already means-tested, sent only to individuals earning up to $87,000 per year or couples earning up to $174,000—a lower threshold than the first round of checks in the spring of 2020.
We also know that the first stimulus worked the way Manchin wants it to. People mostly spent the money on household expenses, particularly those in the worst financial circumstances. Government assistance, including stimulus checks and other important measures like expanded unemployment benefits, made up for Americans’ steep losses in income. These measures briefly kept poverty from rising at a time when millions were losing their jobs, ensuring that far fewer people found themselves in desperate deprivation.
There is now a distant light at the end of this dark pandemic tunnel: Vaccines are being distributed, promising to return us to some semblance of normality. But even before the pandemic, millions of people worked full-time yet still struggled to make ends meet. Democrats can’t leave them in the lurch once the crisis ends.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly backed a federal $15 minimum wage, which would almost double it after more than a decade of stagnation. Like stimulus checks, this too is a good policy that would improve people’s lives without harming the economy. The $15 minimum wage that the House passed in 2019 would have directly increased pay for more than 28 million workers, handing them an average raise of $4,000 a year, and indirectly boosted pay for another 11.6 million who already earn $15 an hour. There is a huge body of evidence that increasing the minimum wage raises pay for low-wage workers without costing jobs. That’s true even for big wage hikes, which economists found have an impact on employment rates that is “statistically indistinguishable from zero,” even in places where wages were previously very low.
Improving people’s financial well-being is also good politics. About two-thirds of voters support not just a one-time $2,000 stimulus check but also monthly $2,000 installments until the pandemic is over—including, incredibly, half of Republicans. Only 22 percent of Georgia voters, for instance, felt the relief package that included $600 stimulus checks went far enough.
A higher wage has similar appeal. Two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, including over 40 percent of Republicans. The policy doesn’t just poll well; it has an impressive winning streak. When voters have been asked at the ballot box whether to raise the minimum wage in their city or state, they’ve said yes every single time since 1998.
Biden is already looking ahead two years, to stave off the electoral shellacking that the president’s party regularly experiences in the midterms. Democrats have the narrowest of majorities in the Senate and are at risk of losing their control of the House, too. The best way to convince voters it’s worth keeping Democrats in power is for them to address Americans’ economic needs. It can’t be done in a timid, piecemeal, or overly means-tested way. Voters want substantial relief, and Democrats promised to give it to them. Now they just have to follow through.