The 2021 Top 10 List of Federal Policy Victories

Jeff Garis and Stephen Herzenberg |

President Biden, operating with a razor-thin Democratic majority in the United States Congress, did not get everything he wanted across the finish line in 2021, but he and his allies achieved several historic victories. As the year-end approaches, we put together this top 10 list to highlight some of these significant wins. These demonstrate that, in the right hands and with support from voters and advocates, the federal government can deliver for the 99%. The 99% needs to recognize these victories and give credit to those who achieved them—so that we can maintain federal elected officials and a federal government that will deliver more victories, in partnership with working families, next year and beyond.




The American Rescue Plan Act

The first five items in our top 10 list are part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), enacted in March. While big COVID-19 relief packages were passed under President Trump with lots of Democratic votes, the ARPA passed under President Biden without a single Republican vote.

1)  COVID vaccine production and distribution to reduce vulnerability to the virus: ARPA invested $20 billion in a national vaccination program in partnership with states, localities, and Tribes, setting up community vaccination sites and deploying mobile vaccination units to remote or hard-to-reach areas. ARPA also provided $50 billion for the expansion of testing (including funds for rapid tests and expanded lab capacity) and to help schools and localities implement testing. Additionally, it funded 100,000 public health workers to carry out vaccine outreach and contact tracing, and $30 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund to strengthen supplies of protective gear.

2)  Emergency payments to keep families and our economy afloat: ARPA provided payments of up to $1,400 to families with an annual income of less than $160,000 and to individuals with an income of less than $80,000 per year. Nearly 6 million (5.87 million) Pennsylvanians received a total of $14.8 billion in direct payment from the federal government. These payments not only helped families put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads but also injected money into local economies in every region of Pennsylvania.

3)  Expanded unemployment insurance to keep workers and our economy afloat (for details, see The State of Working Pennsylvania 2021, pp. 21-23): under the extension of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program, people who were unemployed had $300 added to their regular weekly unemployment benefits through early September. Under the extension of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), freelancers, gig workers, and independent contractors continued to receive unemployment insurance during that time. Under the extension of the Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, provisions that increase the duration of payments for those in the traditional state unemployment system continued as well. The first $10,200 of unemployment payments were tax-free for households with an annual income of less than $150,000: 642,478 jobless workers in Pennsylvania—more than 10% of all workers in the state—were supported through the continuation of these programs in the American Rescue Plan Act.

4)  Emergency support to keep businesses and our economy afloat: ARPA invested $15 billion in the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides for long-term, low-interest Small Business Administration loans. It also included $25 billion for a new grant program, specifically for bars and restaurants, providing up to $10 million for expenses including payroll, mortgage and rent, utilities, and food and beverages. The previously enacted Paycheck Protection Program received an additional $7 billion to keep businesses and non-profit organizations operating.

5) Full pensions for more than a million workers: ARPA also included an estimated $83 billion to rescue nearly 200 failing pension plans nationwide, guaranteeing full pensions for more than a million retirees and workers, including many in Pennsylvania. The money protects the pensions of 100,000 supermarket workers and retirees in the Philadelphia region and many truck drivers in the Teamsters Central States plan.




The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)

The United States has been underinvesting in infrastructure for decades, and the Trump administration talked about infrastructure for much of its four years—but did not pass a bill. On November 5, 2021, the U.S. House passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in a 228-206 vote, mostly with Democratic votes (215 Democrats and 13 Republicans), while six Democrats and 200 Republicans voted against it. The Senate passed the bill on August 10, 2021, with support from all 50 Democrats and 19 of the 50 Republicans. The IIJA will create an estimated 30,000 Pennsylvanians jobs, many in blue-collar, non-residential construction trades.

6)  Repairing and upgrading roads, bridges, and water systems: billions of dollars are coming to Pennsylvania to fix our crumbling, traditional infrastructure, including roads & bridges and water systems. The state will receive $11.3 billion for federal aid-apportioned highway programs and $1.6 billion for bridge replacement and repairs. Pennsylvania will also receive $1.4 billion over five years to improve water infrastructure across the state. In addition, PA can compete for funds under the $12.5-billion Bridge Investment Program for economically significant bridges, as well as for $16 billion dedicated for major projects which will deliver substantial economic benefits to communities. Pennsylvania has 3,353 bridges and more than 7,540 miles of highway in poor condition. Since 2011, commute times have increased by 7.6% in PA, and on average, each driver pays $620 per year in what we call the “pothole tax” for repair costs due to driving on roads in need of repair. The IIJA funds will not only be used to repair our roads and bridges but will be focused on making them safer for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as drivers, and on climate change mitigation.

7)  Improving and expanding public transportation: $2.8 billion over five years to modernize and expand public transportation in PA. Funding will go to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the Port Authority in Allegheny County, and the other 13 major and additional smaller bus transportation systems across the state. These funds are especially critical to Pennsylvanians who take public transportation as they spend an extra 68.8% of their time commuting. Moreover, non-white households are five times more likely to commute via public transportation than white households. Airports in Pennsylvania, another part of the transportation infrastructure, will receive approximately $355 million over five years.

8)  Delivering reliable and affordable high-speed internet to every community: at least $100 million, and possibly up to an additional $900 million, to increase broadband coverage across Pennsylvania, which will provide access to at least 394,000 Pennsylvanians who currently lack it. In addition, 917,000, or 23%, of people in PA, will be eligible for $14.2 billion in Affordability Connectivity Benefits, which will help low-income families afford internet access. High-speed internet access will help families, students, and small businesses, especially in rural areas, which currently have lower-speed internet as this ReImagine Appalachia report shows.

9) First steps on climate, boosting jobs & resilience, & saving families money: Pennsylvanians will benefit from the legislation’s $3.5 billion national investment in weatherization, which will reduce energy costs for families and small businesses. The state will also receive $171 million over five years and the chance to apply for funds under a $2.5-billion grant program to support the expansion of an electric vehicle charging network throughout the state. And we’ll receive federal funds to mitigate the escalating costs and damage of climate change, including extreme weather events. (For example, the state will receive $49 million over five years to protect against wildfires.) From 2010 to 2020, PA experienced 37 extreme weather events, costing the state up to $10 billion in damages. Pennsylvania will also receive $26 million for protection from cyber-attacks.

10) Repairing the damage from fossil fuels: $21 billion to clean up abandoned mine lands ($11.3 billion for this alone), plug orphaned oil and gas wells that leak methane and harm wildlife, and clean up toxic Superfund sites. As the links in the previous sentence show, much of these federal investments will come to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. These states have two-thirds of unreclaimed abandoned mine lands in the U.S. and should receive about $7.5 billion of the $11.3 billion.