Last November, young Americans turned out in significant numbers to cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential election. For many of these voters, their participation in the election was preceded by months or years of advocating for bold, progressive policies on the issues that matter to them—and their decision to cast their ballots for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris reflected the potential they saw in making real change under a Biden-Harris administration. On January 20th, in large part because of the participation of young voters, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris began their tenures as President and Vice President of the United States.
In just over a month, the Biden-Harris administration has taken meaningful action on some of the core issues that matter to Millennials and Generation Z, which is a testament to the work and power of young activists and organizers.
Advocacy and activism is hard, often emotionally draining work, and it is hugely important that we pause to celebrate these early accomplishments. It is also important to recognize the priorities that young voters and advocates are still hoping to see the Biden-Harris administration act on in the coming weeks and months—including gun violence prevention, student debt cancellation, continued support for a national $15 minimum wage, and additional rescue checks in the next COVID relief package.
Without the work of young people who marched, made calls, sent emails, and spread the word, the gains of the last month would not have been possible. There is still significant work to be done, but it is clear that our generations are up for the challenge and our efforts will continue to deliver results.
COVID Pandemic and Economic Survival
More than 500,000 American citizens and residents have died due to COVID-19. To slow the spread of the virus, people have physically distanced from others, been prevented from visiting friends and family, and countless people have lost jobs or income because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. To make matters worse, a recent study found that 40 percent of all U.S. COVID deaths were preventable, and a disastrous federal response to the pandemic by the Trump administration exacerbated the suffering. To put it simply, the collective loss is staggering.
It is, therefore, not surprising that ending the COVID pandemic polled as the top issue for young people during the election. Young Americans want swift and decisive action from the Biden-Harris administration to contain the pandemic and support those suffering from related economic hardship. The Biden-Harris administration has responded, including with the following actions:
- Purchased 200 million more doses of COVID vaccines, increasing supply by 50 percent and giving the country enough vaccines to cover every American adult by the end of July.
- Significantly increased the distribution of vaccines to states and created new federal vaccination sites to administer the vaccines directly to people, especially those in communities that are most vulnerable.
- Created the COVID-19 Health Equity Taskforce to mitigate health and social inequities caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and appointed Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith to lead the task force. Young Black voters ranked ending systemic racism and discrimination nearly as high as ending the COVID pandemic, which makes the creation of this taskforce particularly important.
- Invoked the Defense Production Act to expand and accelerate COVID testing and vaccine production and distribution, and to increase availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and N95 masks—the type of masks that provide the most effective filtration and protection, but which have largely been unavailable in the United States over the past year.
- Expanded the role of Dr. Anthony Fauci—a trusted voice in the scientific community and among young Americans—to make him chief medical adviser and part of Biden’s COVID-19 team, and empowered him to speak candidly with the American public about the state of the pandemic and the steps we must collectively take to contain it.
- Nominated Xavier Becerra, a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act and proponent of universal health care and abortion access, to serve as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
- Proposed the American Rescue Plan, which would:
- Provide $1400 relief checks per adult, to build on the $600 relief checks authorized by Congress in December 2020.
- Provide support for adult dependents and mixed-status families, both of whom were excluded from one or both of the previous COVID relief packages.
- Provide colleges with the necessary resources to implement public health protocols, execute distance learning plans, and provide emergency grants to students in need.
- Allocate an additional $35 billion in rental, mortgage, and homelessness assistance in order to address the housing insecurity that many young people are experiencing.
Climate Change and Environmental Justice
Young people across the world have been leading the movement to address climate change and environmental injustice; the same has been true in the United States, where young advocates have been the pulse of the climate movement. Climate change polled as a top concern for young voters during the election.
Immediately following Joe Biden’s Democratic primary victory, young climate advocates called for Biden to revamp his climate plan and release a bolder, more ambitious climate platform. Biden responded with the most ambitious climate platform of any major party nominee, and through executive actions and senior-level appointments and nominations, President Biden has delivered numerous early victories in the climate space. The Biden-Harris administration’s early climate policies and actions have drawn praise from groups including the Sunrise Movement. The administration’s early actions include:
- Signed an executive order within hours of taking office to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change, the 2015 landmark accord in which the nearly 200 nation-signers commit to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.
- Revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have brought oil from Alberta, Canada all the way to the Texas Gulf. The pipeline was opposed by numerous Indigenous and young (and young Indigenous) leaders in the climate movement, and Biden’s early executive action on this is seen as a clear signal for the administration’s stance on climate.
- Instituted a pause on new leases for oil and natural gas development on federal lands and waters.
- Created, via executive order, the Justice40 Initiative, with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and tracking performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard. Centering the Justice40 Initiative alongside other early climate actions, provides an early indication of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to environmental justice.
- Committed to an ambitious conservation goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal seas by 2030. Known as “30×30” in the conservation community, the effort will help fight climate change and reverse the destruction of our wildlife, waters, and natural places.
- Established a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, “to prioritize environmental justice and ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices, including strengthening environmental justice monitoring and enforcement through new or strengthened offices at the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services.”
- Established the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the first-ever White House National Climate Advisor, Gina McCarthy, reflecting the significance that climate issues will have in the Biden-Harris administration. McCarthy’s appointment and early comments have been celebrated by young advocates. Ali Zaid, the new Deputy National Climate Advisor, has also been celebrated as a young leader who played a key role in developing the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and helping negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement.
- Appointed John Kerry to serve as the first-ever United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, a role tasked with the global climate change crisis. In his role as Special Envoy for Climate, Kerry is also a member of the White House National Security Council. and elevated the role to cabinet-level
- Nominated Representative Deb Haaland to serve as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. If confirmed, Rep. Haaland will be the first-ever Indigenous person to serve as a Cabinet Secretary. Her nomination was advocated for by environmental activists.
Criminal Justice Reform
While climate change actions have taken center stage in the early days of the Biden-Harris administration, there have also been some promising steps taken to reform the criminal justice system and provide second chances to those who’ve previously been convicted of a felony. Young people, ages 18 to 35, are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system—they make up 30 percent of the adult population, but 60 percent of adult arrests and 42 percent of prison admissions. The often-lifetime collateral consequences that follow a conviction can have profound negative impacts on people’s ability to obtain living-wage employment, stable housing, and educational credentials. Young people’s overrepresentation in the system is a major concern for generations that have already witnessed their parents’ generation endure massive incarceration growth which began in the 1970s and accelerated in the early 1980s, which inflicted incalculable harm on Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities. The good news is that over the past few years a gradual decline has begun, and the Biden-Harris administration has taken early steps that demonstrate a desire to see that decline accelerate.
- Issued an executive order to not renew federal contracts with private prisons. Roughly 12 percent of the total U.S. population is in federal prison, and about 16 percent of those in federal prison were held in private prisons. So, eliminating private prison contracts at the federal level will not eliminate mass incarceration nationally, but it does indicate that the Biden-Harris administration anticipates continued decreases in the federal prison population. Previously, private prisons have been used by the federal government when the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) runs out of capacity. Not renewing those contracts means that the BOP will need less capacity than it currently has, which means fewer people in prison. It is also noteworthy that this action came in week one of the Biden-Harris administration, whereas a similar order—which was widely celebrated by advocates—came in the final six months of the Obama administration before being rescinded under Donald Trump, showing that the progress made during the Obama administration is the foundation upon which the Biden-Harris administration will build, rather than the ceiling.
- Eliminated exclusions for business owners with non-fraud felony convictions from accessing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The Paycheck Protection Program was passed by Congress to help small businesses survive the COVID pandemic and economic fallout, but the Trump administration added rules during the implementation of PPP that excluded thousands of business owners who were arrested or convicted of a felony within the past year. The Biden-Harris administration eliminated those discriminatory restrictions.
- Reinstated prosecutorial discretion by rescinding former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memo that prosecutors must “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson issued a memo to all federal prosecutors rolling back Sessions’ harsh charging and sentencing policy and reinstated—on an interim basis—2010 guidance from former Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. which requires prosecutors to make charging decisions based on an individualized assessment of each case. Advocates praised this move as a “clean break from the unjust tactics of over-incarceration.”
- Nominated experienced civil rights attorneys Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke as Associate Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, respectively. During the prior four years, the Department of Justice had been misused and—in some cases—leveraged to actually inflict harm in people’s lives. From the deployment of BOP correctional officers to US cities during racial justice protests and uprisings, to joining court cases in opposition to LGBTQ rights and affordable healthcare, the new DOJ political leadership will have to reinspire confidence in both the agency’s career staff and the country at-large. Nominees Vanita Gupta—who would serve as the number three official at the Department—and Kristen Clarke—who would lead the Civil Rights Division—are nationally-recognized civil rights attorneys whose confirmation would signal a significant shift in the Department’s orientation, and provides an encouraging sign that the Biden-Harris administration will seriously address the issues of over-incarceration and discrimination against people with criminal records.
After four years of inhumane and xenophobic immigration policy under Trump—who made “Build The Wall” the rallying cry of his 2016 presidential election—it is heartening to see the Biden-Harris administration take immediate action to reverse some of the most harmful policies from that era and begin to chart a new path forward. The last year has seen a protracted battle over the Trump administration’s unlawful termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that resulted in DACA recipients living in fear of being deported to countries that many of them do not even remember. The Supreme Court declared that termination unlawful in June of this year, and Biden has already affirmed that the policy will be protected under his leadership. In a positive step forward, the Biden-Harris administration has already introduced an ambitious bill with Congressional Democrats that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, as well as eliminate restrictions on family-based immigration and expand worker visas.
- Ended the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, under which the Department of Justice criminally prosecuted all adults who crossed the border without documentation, with no exception for asylum seekers or parents of minor children, and without regard for individual circumstances. The zero-tolerance policy led to the separation of children from their parents and families, which drew widespread condemnation for its depravity and cruelty.
- Created a taskforce to reunite children who were separated from their families under the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The taskforce will include the Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, the Secretary of Health and Human Service, and will include involvement from Julissa Reynoso, Chief of Staff to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.
- Ended the so-called “Muslim Ban.” This ban, which barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States, was imposed by the Trump administration in 2017 and drew criticism for religious discrimination.
- Reaffirmed support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. On Biden’s first day in office, he signed a presidential memorandum that directed the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General to take action to preserve the program.
- Ended the “Remain in Mexico” policy put in place by the Trump administration, which required asylum-seekers traveling to the U.S. from across the U.S.-Mexico border to await their immigration court date in Mexico. This policy left many vulnerable asylum-seekers in often dangerous and transient conditions.
- Mandated incorporating undocumented immigrants into the census. The Trump administration tried (unsuccessfully) to add a citizenship question to the Census, which would likely deter immigrants from participating in the Census, resulting in an undercounting of the districts that they live in and reducing both federal funding and political power for those districts over the next ten years.
- Terminated the construction and funding of the wall at the U.S. southern border.