Atlanta was honored to host US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on her first official trip in her Cabinet role for the Biden Administration and President Biden this week.
I was honored to join my friend Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, along with leadership from the Coca Cola, Investco and other important key companies here in Greater Atlanta, at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce for the intimate roundtable with the Secretary.
A few weeks ago I spoke on a program for the U.S. Financial Literacy Education Commission with Secretary Yellen, but that was in the online world we have all lived with for more than 15 months. This was the first time we had met again, in her new role. I last meet with her in her role as Federal Reserve Chair.
Historical Factoid: Secretary Yellen is the first person in history to hold the roles of Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, Federal Reserve Chair, and now US Treasury Secretary. To say that she is super smart, and a committed public servant, would be a vast understatement.
The Roundtable Meeting:
The roundtable meeting, which preceded her public, prepared remarks later in the morning at Invest Atlanta, was very substantive, and in it we covered:
– The state of the overall economy.
– The state of jobs, and the challenge of hiring workers. Discussions around the source of the challenge, how long it would be with us, what measures employers were taking to counter the challenge of finding workers in the midst of returned consumer and business demand.
– The state of he global supply chain of needed raw materials, tied to the delivery of in-demand products and services. How all of this is driving up prices, and how long that would be with us.
– Inflation, and future thoughts about that.
– The coming bi-partisan Infrastructure Bill.
And then, the underserved (see additional note, further below on this point).
As we closed the meeting, I strongly commended President Biden, Secretary Yellen and the Fed on actions taken in early 2020, as I believe that the country got very close as a country to a real economic breaking point, as the pandemic came on full four early and the economy shut down. They really did manage that crazy period exceedingly well.
Commendations for a crisis averted.
I also noted that while there can be criticism that the federal government ‘did too much’ stimulus during late 2020 and early to mid 2021, the reality is that no one knew precisely what the right level of ‘inputs’ should be in the midst of crisis, and as Secretary Yellen said herself, ‘it was wise to possibly do too much, than to have done too little.’ I could not agree with her more.
A hoped for reset to a Living Wage.
Before the meeting concluded, I also wanted to take an important moment to speak on behalf of the average worker in America (a concern the Secretary shares I believe), who might be taking this much needed and long overdue moment as a potential ‘personal reset’ for their professional career or work life.
A worker who believes that they might in fact be more valuable to the marketplace than the $8 to $10 an hour that an employer was paying them before the pandemic hit, and now wants to test the market, and see if they can secure pay closer to a living wage. Closer to $15 an hour or more in pay.
A working class and even the middle class group above them, who may have not seen a meaningful wage increase in more than 20 years time in America. If not now, then when, they are saying to themselves. After all, Wall Street and investors got a meaningful boost in asset value — even in the midst of the pandemic of last year (myself included, respectfully). Their concerns are not unreasoned, nor on balance, unreasonable.
It’s notable that employers are responding to the moment, and doing so without damaging their business model. Maybe we can all do well, and do good too.
And then you have the issue of women in the workforce.
Approximately 2 million women have not yet returned to the workforce, and I believe it is a combination of 1) they want to see where COVID, and now the Delta Variant actually is heading (up or down, managed into a box of relative safety or not), and 2) also the issue of child day care, and family care (post pandemic). They have none.
On balance, it was a very strong exchange of information and ideas with Secretary Yellen, and she didn’t’ have to listen as much as she did, but her ability to do so (and to take in all of these inputs), is part of the reason why she has proven to be so good, in my view.
She departed our session and went on to join our mayor, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Invest Atlanta, where they together laid out their vision for the city, and the nation, moving in lockstep towards a country that looks more like ‘opportunity for all.’
The choice does not have to be morals or money, or doing well or doing good. We can do both, at the same time.
Onward, and with HOPE.
John Hope Bryant, Entrepreneur, and founder of Operation HOPE. The largest nonprofit financial inclusion and financial literacy organization for the underserved in the nation.