Economic Equity: The Institute for Economic Equity
This 14-minute podcast was released Sept. 29, 2021, as a part of the Timely Topics: Economic Equity miniseries.
“We are focused on advancing research that informs equity-based policies and practices leading to an economy that works for everybody,” says William M. Rodgers III, vice president and director of the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Rodgers joins Daniel Paul Davis, vice president and community affairs officer, in a discussion about how the St. Louis Fed works to promote a more inclusive and equitable economy.
Daniel Davis: Welcome to Economic Equity, a miniseries from the St. Louis Fed’s Timely Topics podcast series. I’m your host Daniel Paul Davis and today I’m speaking with William M. Rodgers III, a vice president and director of the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Bill, thanks so much for joining me today.
William Rodgers: Well, Daniel, thanks for hosting this conversation.
Davis: I’m the vice president and community affairs officer overseeing the St. Louis Fed’s research and outreach efforts to understand economic conditions for households and communities that are underserved, low income or low wealth. This includes the Institute for Economic Equity, which launched in 2021. Bill, can you share with our listeners, what is the Institute for Economic Equity?
Rodgers: Thank you. Simply put, we are a research institute housed in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and particularly in the community development side of the house. And that’s important, because, particularly for me one reason why, I was hired and also got interested in the position because my career’s really been around empowering people in communities with economics. And to do that you have to be doing good evidence-based research, objective research. Which the Institute had been doing but also, we have this wonderful community development set of scholars and researchers and practitioners. So, this represents a great balance between the two and we are focused on advancing research that informs equity-based policies and practices leading to an economy that works for everybody.
It’s all about doing this wonderful research and we have three aims. Number one really is a descriptive aim and that is examining how low-to-moderate income and low wealth or systemically disenfranchised individuals and communities interact with the economy. And then, number two is causal, that we really are about identifying structural and institutional disparities that suppress the ability of marginalized communities to participate in and derive benefit from the economy. And number three, it’s the solutions. We are about advancing evidence-based research and ideas and policy analysis to foster a more equitable economy.
You’ve written about the Institute and its history and it’s wonderful to hear you knit all the different historical reasons why this institute is so important. Some of the more contemporary challenges that people in Kentucky have faced with regards to race relations, to Memphis’ long history with regards to race relations, and throughout our Eighth District. So, that’s, in a nutshell what we’re about but it’s about really empowering people and providing that information that empowers them.
Davis: Empowering people and providing them that information that empowers them. I love that you identify this personal mission that you have which is focused on empowering people and communities and connecting that really to this idea that the Institute can help understand how people are participating and deriving benefit from the economy, what barriers stand in their way and really the evidence-based solutions that can overcome those barriers is so important in this moment we find ourselves in right now. And I think this connects, as you mentioned, right back to this district that the St. Louis Fed serves, the dynamics that are taking place in our communities and really the history of communities seeking to find a way to a greater economic participation so that more folks can enjoy the benefits of the economy.
When you think, Bill, about your work in 2022 and beyond, what will the Institute focus on?
Rodgers: Well, number one, we’ll continue the great work that was done by our predecessor, the Center for Household Financial Stability. And number two with my coming here, I’ve done a lot of commentary on labor market conditions and so, we’ve begun to do that. We issued a Labor Day message that I wish everybody would go take a look at where we identified where we’ve been over the last year during this pandemic and then, where we are today and lay out a menu of choices or policies that we need to be working on.
Some other things I’d like for us to do is to expand from our descriptive work to these more causal kinds of questions around, well, what are the sources of wealth and equality? What’s happened to racial inequality, particularly in a context of just general inequality? Because I think that’s something that’s really important for us to understand is that, yes, there’s been a growth in racial inequality, continued persistence, gender inequality, members of the LBGTQ communities face economic challenges too. And so those challenges are not just unique to them, those challenges have now become very specific a unique to low- and moderate-income white households or white families in America.
Our work is challenged in that if we’re going to close these gaps between race and gender and disability status, we also have to be making sure that we’re providing, doing that research on a set of families in the lower part of the income scale that have been basically, bullied by globalization, bullied by technology. And we’re trying to look forward with regards to that research agenda, we’re developing it right now and more to come.
Davis: More to come you say. I know that you certainly have me on the edge of my seat, anxious to see what’s coming down the pathway. But I hope for our listeners as well, that they’ll see just the work coming out of the Institute and seeing how it connects directly to their communities where they find themselves and perhaps the groups that they identify with, as well.
Rodgers: One of the things that we will be doing and we’ve been slowed by the pandemic and the travel restrictions, is we do plan on doing a listening tour throughout the Eighth District which I think will be very, very important. For me it will be very personal, particularly in certain places, because my father and my grandfather grew up in the District. And so, for me, one of the reasons why I was so interested in the position is that this is really an element of coming home. But most important though, to what you just triggered is that we will be out on this listening tour talking to folks on Main Street, talking to leaders, talking to those who are impacted by policies. And it just really buttresses an awareness that my mom, a retired social worker and my former boss, the Labor Secretary Alexis Herman used to always remind me that there’s people behind the numbers, there are people behind these numbers that we’re tabulating and calculating and surveying. And so, along with a level of objectivity, there is also a passion that I also feel like I bring to this work and that I would definitely sense in you and sense in our staff. So, as I said, more to come.
Davis: I want to dig in briefly, Bill, into your background and share this with our listeners today. You mentioned how you were chief economist at the U.S. Labor Department, you just referenced that with Alexis Herman, from 2000 to 2001. You have an impressive resume with almost 30 years of experience as a scholar and practitioner and a policy maker. We know that before you came and joined the St. Louis Fed you were a professor of public policy and chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. And you’ve served on boards and commissions, the U.S. Board for the United Way Worldwide comes to mind as one place that you’ve served. So, you bring with you into this perspective a lot of different perches that you’ve sat on trying to affect this personal mission that you mentioned earlier, empowering people and communities. Why did you want to lead this team? What attracted you to coming, to offer your leadership in this capacity?
Rodgers: I’ve worn a lot of hats and I initially thought that I would just continue doing my research and doing my volunteer work with United Way and other organizations and then just coast into retirement. And a variety of things happened, and I’ll just summarize it to say, it feels like we’re being tested, and it also feels like that we now live in this world of extremes, whether it be climate, whether it be our politics, whether it be the economy, right, that we were, prior to the pandemic, we were experiencing one of the best expansions on record. And a year later or several months, we are now on the precipice of a depression.
What I felt is that all the previous work that I had been doing was really a dress rehearsal. That throughout our careers or through our lives we get put in positions or moments or have opportunities and here the opportunity is to really work to empower people on a larger scale. And the Federal Reserve, the bank in St. Louis but the system at large, really provides that platform. And it’s so fascinating because one of the things we like to talk about in the United Way work is that we’re this neutral third party and we have this convening power. And the Federal Reserve, whether it be at our bank in St. Louis or our broader system, we have this ability to convene. And now, with the calls for social justice and greater diversity, equity and inclusion, we are also well poised—because I’ve worked with the Federal Reserve over the years in terms of my work on trying to increase the number of black economists. And the Federal Reserve, in my view, has always been very focused on D, E and I and especially over the last few years.
So, for me it’s, one, coming to this bank and to the system that I’ve known for a number of years and since having that convening power, do it in an objective way, in an evidence-based way. But most important is the people. I remember when you first reached out to me about the opportunity and one big drawback for me or challenge for me was, how do I navigate this? Where I’ve got my parents, who are still very healthy and active, but I have my children, I’ve just launched them and they’re in the region. And as I said, I was doing this kind of work in New Jersey. But the system but then, most important, the people. They’re phenomenal. And I at first thought, I’m not going to be teaching anymore. But just this morning I was having a conversation with some of the staff who are younger than us and realizing, oh my gosh, there’s still opportunities to teach, to be mentor and to mentor. But most important, something I’ve picked up over the years is, folks need advocates for their success. We need to be advocates for each other’s success. So, that could be more vertical, but it also can be very horizontal in terms of those relationships.
Will this work be easy? Not at all, because you can already start to see some pushing back. Whether it be, “We’ve spent too much money.” Or whether it be that, “Why are we talking about race and why are we talking about all this gender stuff?” And the reason why we are is because economic growth suffers when we have inequality. Because why is that? Well, economic growth is basically the sum of productivity growth and population growth. And all the things that we’ve talked about that drive these systemic inequalities, right? They adversely affect our ability to be productive as Americans. And so, that’s another reason why, it’s not only the people, it’s the system but it’s also the work that really drove my decision to want to join the bank.
Davis: I’m interested, Bill, to get your thoughts on the state of workers and families today. I know your team recently put out a Labor Day message, you referenced earlier, that looked at how U.S. workers and families are faring now compared to a year ago. We’re experiencing challenging times right now, coming out of a pandemic that has affected households in many ways health wise but also economically. How are workers and families doing right now? And how’s the nation doing one year later?
Rodgers: The good news is that about 17 million jobs that had been lost have returned. But, however, you know, we still have what people would call a job deficit of around 6 million jobs out there. We did see a dramatic fall, particularly in the participation of women in the labor force and a large share of them are parents. And the good news is there’s been a recovery there. We’ve seen also, recoveries in terms of participation and falling unemployment rates for Latinos and for Blacks, improvements for young people.
However, the glass is more than half full, but we still have a ways to go with regards to recovery. And from there we do have a set of headwinds, right? That ideally, I think, the policymakers were hoping that we would commit all these dollars, the CARES dollars, the AARP dollars, and that would really provide stimulus and propel the economy. But right now, as many of us know, we have the Delta variant that is recreating havoc and had been creating havoc in our district, right? That particularly in Missouri we saw a dramatic increase in cases in the district over a period of time. And one of the other pieces that we’ve written about, it just came out, is this thing that if we don’t do all the mitigating tactics or strategies, that we could jeopardize the recovery that we’ve been experiencing.
We’re at that fork in the road again where if, as a community we come together and recognize that our behaviors are not little atomistic agents, that our behaviors really influence or impact the behavior of other people, the health of other people. And then, we stay committed to the investments that have been occurring at the state level and the federal level. We can take that fork in the road that will lead to, not only prosperity but shared prosperity. Again, back to my relationship, economic growth is the sum of productivity growth and population growth. And that the choices we’re making right now will not only effect productivity today but productivity in the future.
We also have to look at solutions that, frankly, are providing workers with more voice. That there’s been some wonderful work done by the Russell Sage Foundation that has shown how workers, again this is that thing of not only Black workers but even low-income white workers, men, women, that on balance that many of them have lost that agency. And that’s where some of the feelings of hope and the anger and frustration that you see out there. Economics is not all about dollars and cents. That’s one of the reasons why I was so interested in this profession, is that it’s social science, it’s about people. It’s those people, again, behind the numbers. It’s those communities that want to succeed and have their children succeed.
Davis: Bill, as always, it’s great to exchange conversation today. I’ve truly enjoyed talking with you about The Institute for Economic Equity and I cannot wait to see what’s next for the Institute.
Rodgers: Well, thank you for the opportunity and thank you for the support.
Davis: If you’d like to learn more about Bill Rodgers or his team at the St. Louis Fed’s Institute for Economic Equity, don’t hesitate to visit stlouisfed.org.
For more from our Economic Equity podcast miniseries, visit the St. Louis Fed’s website at stlouisfed.org. You can also stream and subscribe to all our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app.