Michelle Holder


Michelle Holder


Michelle Holder is the president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and Associate Professor of Economics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 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. She talked with Public Health Post about barriers to equitable growth in the U.S., the health impacts of those barriers, and policies that can combat those barriers.

PHP: What is the Washington Center for Equitable Growth?

Michelle Holder: The Washington Center for Equitable Growth is a nonprofit research and grant making institution based out of D.C. We are primarily interested in understanding whether and how inequality inhibits economic growth. We also conduct academic research, which outlines evidence-based approaches to alleviating inequality and ensuring strong, stable, and broad-based growth.

I am a labor economist by training. I focus on outcomes in the American labor market including disparate outcomes along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, educational attainment.

Could you describe equitable growth for someone who is unfamiliar and how it influences health?

What one typically wants to see in an economy is growth and prosperity. You want an economy that is providing the populace with better, more fulfilling lives.

Equitable growth is when the fruits of that prosperity are more broadly shared. If you hear that the economy is growing by 3- 5%, a lot of the fruits of that may be going to the highest income earning households. But you want that growth to be expressed in a more equitable way, such that up and down the income ladder households, families, and individuals are experiencing that prosperity.

Most of the income growth in this country has occurred among the top 20% of households over the last couple of decades. And the bottom 20% of households have only experienced a really modest increase in household income. So high income households are enjoying a greater share of all income produced in this country over time.

What is the biggest barrier to equitable growth in the U.S.?

The biggest barrier to equitable growth in the U.S. is that wages have not been livable for the average worker for a very long time. That is where the country needs to start. The federal minimum wage has not budged in years; it’s still $7.25 an hour. And it is true that there are about 30 states in this country that have a state minimum wage  a lot higher then $7.25 an hour. But that means there are about 20 states where the minimum wage is still effectively $7.25 an hour. And I can tell you at $7.25 an hour, if you have a family of three, that family would fall underneath the federal poverty threshold. And in this country the terminology “working poor” should not be part of our vocabulary, but it is.

When you say “working poor” I think of the term “deserving poor.” How are these concepts related to the idea of deserving a living wage or healthcare?

We do, in this country, tend to break out the poor in those two groups, the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor.” There is this approach where policy interventions tend to be targeted to the “deserving poor.” And those interventions that are directed at the “undeserving poor” tend to be less generous.

An example of policies that are targeted at the “deserving poor” would be the earned income tax credit. As long as you’re working, you deserve government assistance. But if you’re not working, if you’re voluntarily unemployed–maybe you’re a stay-at-home dad, or you have a significant mental or physical disability– you don’t qualify for that assistance.

Is there a policy or initiative you’re working on at the Center for Equitable Growth that you’re particularly excited about?

One of the pieces of legislation that has been successful is the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It’s a large piece of legislation that projects to create millions of jobs over the next 10 years: roads, bridges, schools. One thing I’m excited about is the ability to weigh in on how that piece of legislation is rolled out. We want to ensure that the jobs that will be created from this large investment on the part of our government are equitably distributed, along gender lines, class lines, racial and ethnic lines. A lot of the jobs that are projected to be created will occur in industries that tend to be male dominated like construction and manufacturing.

Photo provided by Michelle Holder