Editor’s note: Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, our #PolicyForward series spotlights how the Harris School of Public Policy is driving impact for the next generation. In addition to stories from faculty, students, and alumni, we reached out to other experts in the field to share their perspective on strengthening democracy and our institutions.

Harin Contractor, a Harris Public Policy alumnus, was an Economic Policy Adviser at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Why are challenges to fighting poverty and inequality so important to effectively address?

The data is clear on this. The exacerbation of inequality is contributing to secular stagnation and the reduction of economic potential. Despite corporate profit and productivity increases, wages, wealth, and economic potential has diminished. Even though we are in a supposed "tight" labor market, wages are not growing at the rates we experienced the last time we had a tight market, and GDP growth is far below expectations given the suppose underlying conditions. There's an economic imperative to reduce inequality. Not only does reducing inequality provide, in particular, people of color with additional opportunities and pathways, but it also creates resilience in the economy. Reducing inequality and poverty leads to growing the larger economic pie and makes the country less prone to shocks like the Great Recession. There's also a moral imperative. For far too long, systemic barriers have hindered opportunities for many people of color, whether through policies like the GI Bill, which grew the American middle class but was exclusionary from African Americans, or the prison industrial complex, leading to exacerbating inequality without reforming and re-connecting individuals to the labor market and society.

What advice would you give the “next generation” of young people eager to fighting poverty and inequality?

The old adage "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu" is appropriate here. Elected officials, government officials, and policy makers have a strong role to play in the regulation of systems that for many years created or push further inequities. The people who lead and work in these key roles do not look like this country or reflect the rapid change that is happening in the U.S.  The push for more inclusive policies needs more diversity and inclusion - I hope the next generation runs for office, hires diverse staff, and incorporates ideas and thoughts from the communities rather than from those who have access or the paid for ability to create access.

What policies would make the most impact to fighting poverty and inequality?

The most interesting proposals coming forward now that could reduce the wealth gap and push for more inclusive policies are the Baby Bonds proposal from Derrick Hamilton & Sandy Darity, which is being championed by Senator Cory Booker, as well as the push from Senator Warren for more workers on corporate boards as a way to include worker voice. Some other proposals we are working on to address skills and education are pushing for more "blended learning," which is doing distance learning with an in-person instructor led by community colleges/HBCU's in order to push create expertise and quality into K-12 schools, as well as a Universal Skills initiative in which workers can receive free tuition if they go into training, licensing, or acquire credentials for in-demand skills/occupations. Building up a skilled and educated workforce can help reduce crime, lower dependence on safety net initiatives, and create resiliency within communities. We cannot overlook the importance of paid leave proposals and their importance for women of color.

About Harin Contractor

A self-described data nerd, Harin's experience has spanned start-ups, consulting, and government. Currently he is the Workforce Policy Director at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank devoted to solving economic challenges facing the African American community. Harin was a political appointee in Obama Administration at the U.S Department of Labor as the Economic Policy Advisor to the Secretary. He also started the Data Analytics unit of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), a government-regulated non-profit that provides $10 billion of grants to facilitate broadband access across the United States. Harin also co-founded the Washington Leadership Program, an initiative to identify, fund, and train South Asian American college students for a future in policy and politics. Harin is a graduate of the University of Georgia and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. You can follow him @harincontractor.