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Revitalizing the middle class

Photos by Evan Krape

Biden Challenge conference features exchange of policy ideas

From offering universal, lifelong education that targets in-demand job skills to rebuilding America’s infrastructure to focusing the political will on innovative policies, the Biden Challenge conference on Friday Sept. 28 at the University of Delaware produced a wealth of ideas for restoring the middle class.

All those ideas were proposed in response to the challenge issued last year by former Vice President and UD alumnus Joe Biden. Addressing the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) annual conference, Biden charged them with developing policy solutions to “ensure America a growing and thriving middle class.”

The proposals came from the scholars and nonprofit executives who spoke at the conference, but also from the diverse group of attendees who participated in open idea-exchange sessions throughout the daylong event at Clayton Hall, which was organized by the Biden Institute and the UD School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA).

“When the middle class does well, everybody does well,” Biden told the audience during his opening remarks. “Revitalizing the middle class is the single most important challenge of our time.”

He cited “the social stability that comes from a strong middle class,” noting that access to the middle class offers a ladder to a better life for low-income individuals and families, who can realistically hope to own a house, send their child to college and save for retirement.

UD President Dennis Assanis opened the conference by welcoming the speakers and the audience, and encouraging everyone to meet the challenge of finding ways to revitalize America's middle class.

"It is the backbone of society, and it is the backbone of democracy," Assanis said of the middle class.

Biden told the crowd that income inequality has eroded the middle class, as workers fail to get their fair share of the nation’s overall economic growth. Biden called the current situation “an enormous opportunity” to determine whether the United States moves forward or backward.

Before turning the conference over to the scheduled speakers, panelists and audience members, Biden encouraged everyone in attendance to think about their own ideas for addressing the challenge. He said higher education can play a key role.

“We know that universities do more than educate students,” he said. “They serve as powerful platforms for solving real problems.”

The conference included three panel discussions, in which leading scholars discussed various policy issues that directly affect the strength of the middle class.

The first plenary focused on budget priorities. Topics included education, specifically the training needed to prepare for 21st century jobs; employment and the importance of revitalizing the public service sector, where jobs have often been a pathway to the middle class, especially for members of minority groups; a public-private partnership financing system known as Pay for Success; and ways to better measure financial stability.

Panelist on the second plenary discussed workforce dynamics. Speakers delved into financial instability among today’s middle class; infrastructure investment as a way to increase opportunities for all Americans; social inclusion, specifically the use of education and employment policies to expand the middle class; and the importance of economic, personal finance and entrepreneurship education.

The last panel of the day highlighted the role of innovation in developing policy solutions. Participants engaged in a thoughtful discussion around state initiatives addressing middle class challenges; moving from policy to practice in implementing ideas; programs that offer free tuition to promote college attainment; and practices that promote civic engagement among students.

Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a member of the Biden Institute’s policy board, delivered the luncheon address on economic inequality.  

Instead of the assumption that a rising tide will lift all boats, economists now know that it will lift some boats, while others will run aground, Boushey said.

Inequality drags down the overall economy, she said, and changes the kinds of policy recommendations that economists make.

At the conclusion of the day’s final panel discussion, Dan Rich, professor of public policy at UD, offered his answer to the Biden Challenge. Noting that more than half of the discussion at the conference appeared to involve education, Rich proposed “universal, lifelong education,” from early childhood through retraining adults as needed when job markets change.

The prosperity and growth of the middle class that occurred after World War II didn’t just happen but resulted from massive public investment, said Rich.

“We did it once, and we can do it again,” he said.

More about the Biden Challenge

Biden originally issued his challenge to find ways to revitalize the middle class when he spoke last year at the NASPAA conference in Washington.

The Biden Institute and School of Public Policy and Administration organized the Sept. 28 conference and idea exchange as a way to generate ideas for Biden and others to consider. After Assanis welcomed the attendees, SPPA Director Maria Aristigueta, the Charles P. Messick Chair in Public Administration, introduced Biden.

Some of the papers presented will be published in a special issue of the journal Public Integrity Symposium. The Biden Challenge will also be highlighted at upcoming conferences of NASPAA, the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration.

Updates and more information will be posted on the websites of the Biden Institute and the School of Public Policy and Administration.

About the Biden Institute at UD

Led by its founding chair, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware's School of Public Policy and Administration is a research and policy center working to bring together the sharpest minds and the most powerful voices to influence, shape and solve the most pressing domestic policy problems facing America.


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