Michelle Holder on Equity and the Economic Recovery

This week, Daniella sits down with Washington Center for Equitable Growth President and CEO Michelle Holder to discuss the economy, Ukraine, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings.

Part of a Series

This week, Daniella sits down with Michelle Holder, president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and professor of economics. They talk about how the economy’s doing (for more than just white men), how Michelle has navigated her field as a Black woman, and what policies she wants to see lawmakers advance this year. Daniella also breaks down the latest from Ukraine, plus the outrageous Republican questioning at Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings.

Learn more about the podcast here.


Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hi, everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. Today we’re talking to Michelle Holder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and trust me—you want to stick around for this one. We’re diving into the current state of our economic recovery, economic priorities for the Biden administration, and, what I’m really excited to talk about, what it’s like to be a Black woman in the largely white-, male-dominated economic policy field. But first, let’s get to some news.

I hope that someday we can stop talking about Ukraine on this podcast every week. And what I mean by that is that I hope someday soon, Vladimir Putin will give up on his futile and criminal attack on innocent Ukrainian people—people who, by the way, in case you’ve taken a break from this depressing news cycle, continue to mount such a remarkable defense that leading U.S. military officials are now calling the situation in Ukraine a stalemate. That’s right—Putin started a war he can’t win. But who knows what he’ll do next with his back up against the wall, especially since the Kremlin has proven they’re willing to bomb humanitarian corridors, hospitals, and shelters clearly marked as having children inside.

That’s a really dark rabbit hole that I don’t want to go down, but it’s one that reminds me of how thankful I am that it is Joe Biden who is leading us through this crisis, and not the former guy. A reminder, the Biden administration has organized a strong and unified response to the crisis overseas. The president is currently in Europe rallying our allies against the Russian war in Ukraine. His swift and decisive sanctions have been an example for the international community, which has now more or less unanimously branded Russia, Putin, and his oligarch buddies as global pariahs. The administration has also surged military support for Ukraine, making it now the third-largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in the world. Congress just passed a $13.6 billion aid package last week. Now, let’s contrast that to Donald Trump. I’ve said it before, and I will keep bringing it up: This is the man who tried to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a war hero, by demanding he launch a fake investigation into Joe Biden—and withheld U.S. security assistance when he resisted. “Make America Great Again”? Do great countries politically blackmail war heroes? I don’t think so. John Bolton—remember that guy? Donald Trump’s former national security adviser—has recently said that he basically had to plead with him to keep him from pulling the U.S. out of NATO.

We truly don’t have enough time on this podcast for me to chronicle all the ways that Donald Trump and the Republicans aided and abetted Vladimir Putin during Trump’s time in office. And now, Republicans have the audacity to denounce the president’s response as quote-unquote “weak.” What’s weak is cozying up to a dictator because you’re a fan of his manipulative ability to get away with murder and war crimes, or voting against $13.6 billion in critically needed defense assistance for Ukrainians, which over two dozen Republicans did last week. So again, thank God it’s Joe Biden, who is facing this crisis head-on and helping unite regional leaders—what Biden’s doing, and will continue to do, as he heads to Europe to lead a united global resistance of Putin’s invasion. That’s as strong as it gets.

Now, let’s pivot to something—I was gonna say lighter, but I don’t know if I can describe 19 hours of nitty-gritty legal questions as “light.” So, let’s just go with: “something less tragic.” We’ve got to talk about this week’s confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, which, depending on when you’re listening to this, are most likely happening as we speak. Now, we’ve sung the praises of Judge Jackson on this podcast before, so you probably already know about her outstanding record of service both as a federal appeals court judge and a federal district court judge; her reputation as an impartial jurist with a commitment to equal justice; the over 600 decisions she’s authored, less than 2 percent of which have been overruled—a very low rate; and the unique perspective she would bring as the only former public defender on the bench, and, of course, as the first Black woman ever to serve on a high court. Not to mention her history of bipartisan support. As you’ve probably also heard, this is not Judge Jackson’s first rodeo. She’s been confirmed three times, each on a bipartisan vote. Despite all that, what we’ve heard from Republicans so far has been weird—not surprising, but petty, factually inaccurate, sometimes just plain irrelevant. Dear old Lindsey Graham spent an absurd amount of time on day one ranting about decorum, and how Republicans would treat Judge Jackson throughout the hearing process, accusing Democrats of sowing chaos during the confirmation hearings of justices like Brett Kavanaugh. I just have to point out that Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexual assault. Judge Jackson is not. Apples and meatloaf, not even in the same category. Also, can you imagine if Democrats had asked Amy Coney Barrett to rate her piety on a scale of 1 to 10? Just listen:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), audio clip from Senate confirmation hearing: So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are, in terms of religion? You know, I go to church probably three times a year, so that speaks poorly of me. Or do you attend church regularly? 

Ketanji Brown Jackson, continued audio clip from Senate confirmation hearing: Well, senator, I am reluctant to talk about my faith in this way.

Gibbs Léger: Come on, man. But that was just the start of it. You probably heard them suggest that Judge Jackson is somehow soft on crime. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley repeatedly brought up this notion that Judge Jackson is lenient on sex offenders, particularly in child pornography cases. Here he is:

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), audio clip from Senate confirmation hearing: But judge, with all due respect, and I tell you what, I’ll be direct with you. I am questioning your discretion, your judgment—that’s exactly what I’m doing. It would bother me no matter what. It really bothers me when in every case—child porn case—you’ve had where you’ve had discretion, you’ve sentenced below the guidelines and below the government’s recommendation.

Gibbs Léger: I don’t want to know where his team even got the idea to manufacture that blatantly false talking point. In the vast majority of Judge Jackson’s cases involving child sex crimes, the sentences she imposed were consistent with or above what the government or U.S. probation recommended. Even the right-wing National Review said Sen. Hawley’s points are quote “disingenuous.” And what’s more, she’s gotten endorsements from the National Fraternal Order of Police, dozens of top law enforcement officials, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and 83 Democratic and Republican former attorneys general. You don’t get those kinds of endorsements if you’re quote “soft on crime.” You just don’t. You might also hear that she has quote-unquote “defended terrorists.” The cases Republicans are referencing here happened during her time as a public defender. As I’ve said before, they clearly don’t understand what a public defender is. She notes her briefs during that time did not reflect her personal beliefs, but the views of her clients, whom she represented to the best of her ability—because that’s literally what the job entails. Makes me a little nervous that the same people who don’t understand what public defenders do are the ones who confirm nominees to our Supreme Court.

We’ve also got to address this argument from Republicans that Judge Jackson is some sort of judicial activist who tries to shape policy through her decisions. Ketanji Brown Jackson understands the role of the courts in our system of government. She is a judge who applies the law to the facts and sets aside her own views. She’s ruled both for and against on issues concerning the Trump and Obama administrations. She’s consistently demonstrated a dedication to the rule of law; has an extensive record of being an impartial jurist to all parties that came before her; and has been praised by dozens of prominent conservatives in a letter noting her quote “judicious and even-handed approach.” And news flash, Cancun Cruz: Critical race theory is something that is taught in law schools that has no application in public school curriculum or to Judge Jackson’s possible future work on the bench. But sure, why don’t you keep wasting some oxygen lecturing a Black woman about racism during these confirmation hearings? Better yet, why don’t you explain to the American public why you want to ban books or have our children learn an inaccurate history of our country? I digress.

At the time of this taping, it’s too early to predict how the votes will shake out. But let’s be clear: Judge Jackson is more qualified for this than several sitting Supreme Court justices, many of whom breezed through confirmation. Yes—I’m talking about you, Amy Coney Barrett. If you’re watching this space, as I often tell you to do, take note of how Republicans talk to and about this exemplary nominee, and ask yourself: What are they afraid of? Could it be that they don’t want decision-making bodies to reflect the diversity of the American people? Could it also be that having someone who rules fairly on the court is bad for their agenda? Or are they just intimidated by a Black woman who’s more accomplished than they’ll ever hope to be? I’ll let you decide.

If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you’re streaming from, and we really appreciate your feedback. Now, stick around for our interview with Michelle Holder in just a beat.

[Musical break]

Gibbs Léger: Michelle Holder is the president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and an associate professor of economics at John Jay College at the City University of New York. Her research focuses on discrimination in the workplace and wage gaps between white men and other groups in the United States. Michelle, thanks so much for joining us on “The Tent” today.

Michelle Holder: Thank you for having me, Daniella. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Gibbs Léger: So, we are one year out from the passage of the American Rescue Plan, which listeners will remember we talked about last week on the pod. A year ago, the unemployment rate was at 6 percent, nearly 10 million people were out of a job, and nearly 1 in 5 children were living in poverty. Since then, the administration’s efforts have created 4 million new jobs, reduced childhood poverty by nearly 40 percent, and increased net wealth for the bottom 80 percent of Americans by income. All that being said, I wanted to get your thoughts as an economist on the current state of our economic recovery. How are we doing?

Holder: I mean, I think by many accounts, we are doing well. You know, you just cited some of the major stats that I would have cited as well. You know, the unemployment rate has come down to near pre-pandemic levels. GDP growth was quite considerable during 2021. So, by all accounts, our recovery is in full swing. I think there are some, you know, areas of concern, but in an aggregate sense, I’d have to say that the economy is—it seems to be roaring back.

Gibbs Léger: So, let’s dive in a little bit to that. You know, despite some wins, we do continue to see long-standing economic inequities impacting the recovery for women, as well as Black, Latino, and disabled folks. You know, all of these groups are facing significantly higher unemployment rates than white men, as well as factors that make work more challenging, such as a lack of investment in, you know, care infrastructure, the continued dangers of COVID-19, and delayed health care as a result. So, you know, from your perspective, you know, how equitable has our economic recovery been, and what can be done moving forward to ensure greater equity across demographics, whether that’s race, gender, or other categories?

Holder: Sure. So, you know, I would say that, you know, one of the words I wanted to really emphasize in what I said just now is, you know, in an aggregate sense, it appears that our recovery is a robust one. But when you begin to disentangle the numbers along the lines of primarily race and gender, you do see that there is still a gendered component to our recovery, meaning it is taking women longer than men to enjoy the full range of this recovery. And what I mean by that is, if you look at some of the labor force stats for women over the course of this pandemic, it’s pretty clear that, you know, women, number one—a lot of your listeners would know this—but women dropped out of the labor force in disparate numbers as compared to men. And, you know, when women leave the labor force, they tend to stay out longer than men.

So, you know, one issue is the recovery is not exactly—even when you look at it by gender—and then when you look at it by race and ethnicity the picture gets even more challenging in that during the early part of the pandemic, it was obvious that it was really not only women overall but specifically Black women and Latinas, who were bearing the brunt of the massive job losses. You know, Latinas had the highest unemployment rate during the first three months of the pandemic, followed by Black women. And so, fast-forwarding to today, it is those two groups of women who have also, by the way and by extension, had the sort of sharpest and greatest drop in their labor force participation rates. And where labor force participation is concerned, you want to see high numbers, because it gives you a sense of the level of attachment and engagement of a country’s population to their workforce. And so, when that participation rate starts declining, it means people are leaving the labor force, and fewer people proportionately are working. You don’t want to see that number declining, but that’s precisely what happened among Black women and Latinas.

Gibbs Léger: So, what’s interesting to me is that as you were speaking, I kept thinking, you know, we don’t always get analysis and nuance like this when the only economists in the room are white men. But as I’m sure you are well aware, economic policy is a historically white- and male-dominated field. So, could you talk to our listeners about your experience as a Black woman in this field and how it impacts your work?

Holder: I have to say, you know, there are difficulties being a Black woman in a profession in this country that is overwhelmingly comprised of white males and, you know, well-educated white males, by the way. So we’re talking about, you know, the elite of the group. So, that brings another whole dimension of difficulties for someone like me, who actually grew up quite working class and, in some ways, you know, part of the poor class because my mom was a single parent, first-generation immigrant raising three children in inner-city Brooklyn. And so, you know, I bring a, certainly, a kind of a lived experience to my work. And, you know, I find that when I want to, and when I do, you know, focus on issues of disparity by race or by gender, you know, it’s not always welcome in terms of discourses surrounding inequities, right? Because in the economics profession, you know, everyone—when you’re looking at how people act and people behave, you know, people are—in terms of, you know, pure mainstream economic theory—are sort of maximizing their utility, right? Everyone is, you know, out to maximize their utility, meaning maximize their happiness. And so, things, characteristics like, you know, how does race affect economic outcomes? How does gender affect economic outcomes? How does LGBTQ status affect economic outcomes? It’s not always—these are not always characteristics that the economics profession really wants to tackle head-on. Because, you know, it’s all about, you know, rational man acting rationally and not Black women or Asian women or, you know, Latino men. It’s all about this kind of colorless, genderless, maximizing individual. And so, yeah, it’s difficult. It hasn’t been an easy path, being a Black woman in this profession in this country.

Gibbs Léger: Yeah, I could only imagine as somebody who does not—economics is not my thing. I am much better with the written word. I can, from the outside, I can definitely see how that would be the case. I want to take it back to legislation for a second. You know, obviously, lawmakers have ambitions to continue to ease the economic pain that many American families still find themselves in today. The Progressive Caucus recently revealed their wish list of executive orders from the Biden administration, which included many economic recovery priorities, such as increasing the thresholds to be eligible for overtime pay, lowering health care costs, and more. So, in that same spirit, I would love to hear your wish list. You know, what would you like to see lawmakers in the White House and in Congress accomplish in the next year-plus from an economic policy perspective?

Holder: Well, you know, I would have to say, although we’ve heard so little discourse about this in terms of national politics, you know, one thing—I’m a labor economist by training, and essentially, you know, I look at, you know, the American labor market and how groups are faring in the, in the American labor market, particularly, you know, different demographic groups. Obviously women—well, not obviously—but I do look at women and people of color. And so, you know, one huge wish list item of mine, that I would love to see, you know, our Congress take up is, can we raise the minimum wage, please? The federal minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. There are, I think, somewhere in the order of about 30 states that have their own, that have raised their state minimum wage way above $7.25 an hour. But on the other hand, that means they are about 20 states that haven’t, which means de facto, their minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. And I can tell you, because I’ve done the calculation, if you are a person earning minimum wage, working full time—say, for example, it’s a family of three, you know, two parents and a child, and one parent is working full time at minimum wage—that family is officially poor in this country. And so, that family would be part of what’s called the working poor in the U.S., which is a term that I think should not be, you know, part of our lexicon. You should not be working full time in this country and be poor.

Gibbs Léger: Well, from your lips to Congress’ ears. It is well past time for them to raise the minimum wage, and, you know, subsisting on $7.25 an hour, as you mentioned, it doesn’t happen—you can’t. So, I want to end with a question not related to economics. At the top of the show, we talked about the hearings happening now for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Like I said, this isn’t an economics question. But, as a fellow Black woman, I would love to get your thoughts on her nomination, and, you know, what it means for you.

Holder: Oh my gosh, it means so much to me. It’s amazing. I have two children, both of whom are daughters. And yes, I am a Black woman, and my daughters are Black girls. And so, it’s fantastic for me to be able to tell them, you know, Ketanji Brown Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. It’s just amazing. I think it’s, you know, high time, obviously—it’s actually past time. In some ways, I have to give a lot of kudos to our president, you know, Uncle Joe, Joe Biden. You know, in the Black community, he is affectionately called Uncle Joe, because we feel that way about him. We feel like, you know—hey, he could be our family member—you know, good old Uncle Joe. But, you know, he saw it, you know, in his wisdom, to make this move. And I think kudos to him, and I hope Miss Brown Jackson gets confirmed.

Gibbs Léger: Yeah, it’s been remarkable to watch. There have been lots of memes and other things going around the internet showing her grace and confidence under questioning that is ridiculous, to put it nicely. It just reminds me of, you know, something that I’m sure both of our, you know, both of our mothers have taught us, that, you know, when you’re a Black girl in this country, you really do just have to be twice as good as everybody else. And you have to be twice as good at maintaining your composure under pressure, because we know what happens when you don’t. And she’s just a personification of that. It’s been—it’s been remarkable to watch, and she’s so smart. I just love smart Black women. It makes me happy. [laughter]

Holder: Me too, I’d have to say. [laughter]

Gibbs Léger: Well, I want to thank you so much, Michelle Holder, for joining us on “The Tent” this week.

Holder: Oh, it was my pleasure, Daniella. I’m happy to come back anytime.

Gibbs Léger: Great, I will take you up on that.

As always, thanks for listening. Be sure to go back and check out previous episodes. As promised, I was going to come back here, I told you, and talk about “The Bachelor.” “Um—wow” is all I have to say. You know, the hosts always say, “This is the most dramatic season ever, the most dramatic finale ever.” Jesse Palmer was right: This was pretty freakin’ dramatic. And Clayton looked like he just wanted to be swallowed up by that couch as the evening went on. I was surprised that, at the end of the day, Susie got back with him. And I just wonder like after watching it back, and after hearing what Rachel and—wow, I just totally forgot what… Gabby—what Rachel and Gabby had to say, if she has any second thoughts. Like, I felt like their chemistry was off when they were sitting on the couch. And I know it’s weird, and you’re in front of like millions of people, and you just went through a whole show where, at least if you’re Clayton, you looked like a complete jerk. But it just felt weird and forced. And God bless them. I wish them luck. He’s apparently already sold his house and is picking up and moving to Virginia Beach. I don’t know what he’s going to do for a living. I guess he’ll try to make some post-“Bachelor” lifestyle thing happen.

But if there’s some positives that I took away from this season, it was the friendship between Rachel and Gabby. Seeing two women support each other in a very awkward moment at that rose ceremony, it kind of warmed my heart. And also, when Gabby basically told him to F off, and she was like, “No, you can’t walk me out.” I was like, “You go. You go, girl.” I’m excited, a little scared, for their season, because, if they’re doing it together, I don’t know how this works without it being a train wreck, and I don’t like the idea of pitting two women against each other, which is kind of what it sounds like. But anyway, it could be a mess. I’ll still be there because I’m in—like, I am fully into this franchise, so there’s nothing I can do about it. But anyway, if you have different thoughts on what happened at the finale, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. I’m @dgibber123, and I am always down to talk about your trashy TV viewing habits. So anyway, that’s it for “The Bachelor.” I don’t know what reality TV show I’m going to watch next until it comes back. If you have any thoughts about that, shoot them to me too. But in the meantime, continue to take care of yourselves. Get your booster shot if you haven’t. Hopefully, we can finally be on the other side of COVID. But that only happens if we continue to do the right thing. So take care of your family. Take care yourselves, and we’ll see you back here next week.

“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer. And Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy


Erin Phillips

Broadcast Media Manager

Kelly McCoy

Senior Director of Broadcast Communications

Tricia Woodcome

Former Senior Media Manager

Sam Signorelli

Policy and Outreach Associate, Government Affairs

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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger and co-hosted by Colin Seeberger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.


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