What Does It Mean to Build Back Better?
The THRIVE Act centers justice in our economic recovery
As the national spotlight swings from pandemic relief to economic recovery, a coalition of progressive organizations are pushing Congress to enact sweeping policy changes that they say are needed to “build back better” from COVID-19—a platform they’ve dubbed the THRIVE Agenda. THRIVE, which stands for Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy, would be the first piece of a federal Green New Deal, a political framework that aims to solve the climate crisis by targeting economic, environmental, and racial injustice simultaneously.
The THRIVE Agenda is a plan for an equitable economic recovery from the pandemic. First introduced in September as a congressional resolution (a nonbinding framework guiding future policy development) and then reintroduced into the current Congress in February, the plan is backed by hundreds of grassroots and labor groups and more than 100 members of Congress. The Sierra Club’s new economic renewal report, released earlier this month, found that an investment of $1 trillion every year for 10 years under THRIVE would create and sustain more than 15 million jobs in the United States while cutting climate pollution in half.
THRIVE is the brainchild of the Green New Deal Network, a coalition of 15 national organizations that are focused on combating social inequity and environmental destruction. The network formed before COVID-19 hit, in response to the multiple, compounding crises being intensified by climate change—crises that the pandemic has since laid bare.
“We now have an administration that accepts climate change, and now is the time for us to take action while that political window is open,” says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, one of the groups behind the Green New Deal Network. “Political windows don’t stay open.”
In mid-March, the Green New Deal Network launched the THRIVE Act. Set to be introduced alongside Biden’s Build Back Better recovery plan in April, the act translates the overarching goals of the congressional resolution into actionable policy. In the coming months, starting with a #TimeToTHRIVE day of action on March 31, supporters of the plan will push to make Biden’s economic recovery package as THRIVE-like as possible.
What are these multiple, compounding crises?
COVID-19 isn’t just a public health crisis. Low-income Americans and people of color have been hit hardest by pandemic-related job losses. Communities of color have historically been pushed into substandard, overcrowded housing, where the virus can spread easily, by cities’ racist redlining practices. And these same communities face disproportionate exposure to air pollution and a higher risk of death from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, that air pollution is contributing to climate change, which exacerbates extreme weather events that can hit communities of color the hardest—like the five named storms that battered low-income Louisiana neighborhoods last year. As the pandemic raged, 2020 saw a record 22 US weather and climate disasters that each cost more than a billion dollars. THRIVE is designed to address the fact that while climate change is a global crisis, its effects are highly localized.
“We really need federal to local connection,” says Rachel Cleetus, policy director with the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Right now, we don't have that. Instead, we have disaster response, which is a very one-off, emergency type of view to something that's pretty clearly climate-caused and getting worse.”
The legacy of compounding inequities leaves marginalized communities ill-equipped to recover from extreme events. Moving from disaster response to climate resilience requires extensive infrastructure work, Cleetus says. That’s where THRIVE comes in.
What does THRIVE propose?
The Green New Deal Network sees COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity to build a more just economy. The network’s member organizations argue that returning to normal pre-pandemic life isn’t good enough. They say “normal” is fundamentally unjust, unhealthy, and unsustainable, and simply reopening the economy would fail to address the other ongoing crises.
“By recovery, let me be clear,” Representative Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York City and one of the plan’s congressional supporters, said during a March 16 THRIVE Act kickoff call. “I don’t mean a narrowly targeted effort to bring us back to the way things were a year ago. That is not nearly enough, and that in and of itself would be a digression for communities who have been suffering all along.”
The eight pillars of THRIVE include creating good jobs; protecting workers’ rights to form or join unions; investing in communities of color; rebuilding relationships with Native nations; combating environmental injustice; preventing climate catastrophe; supporting workers through the economic transition; and reinvesting in public institutions and infrastructure.
The plan highlights the importance of addressing past harms within solutions to the current economic crisis. Without the labor and equity standards embedded in THRIVE, stimulus money would create lower-paying, non-union jobs and primarily benefit white men, according to the Sierra Club report. Instead, the THRIVE Act aims to uplift the voices of marginalized communities in policymaking and enable the people who are experiencing the compounding crises to oversee how investments are made in their communities.
“Our nation requires a recovery that is commensurate with the scale of the intersecting crises that we face, placing vulnerable populations squarely at the heart of this recovery,” Clarke said.
THRIVE’s second pillar, the expansion of unions, is reflected in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act passed by the House in early March. The 225–206 vote fell almost entirely along party lines. Biden favors the policy, which aims to boost the bargaining power of workers, including independent contractors and gig workers. Big business groups oppose it. Many members of Congress are also advancing policies that would actualize other parts of THRIVE.
Following the passage of the American Rescue Plan, much of Washington is focused on Biden’s anticipated infrastructure package. THRIVE supporters favor big investments in climate-resilient infrastructure like renewable energy, clean manufacturing, electric vehicles, and upgraded housing. The agenda is designed to inform policy development for decades, starting with the current economic crisis.
“We need to be making sure that we're investing in climate resilience, because these climate impacts are terrifying right here and now,” Cleetus says. “These are all sort of common-sense things that are part of the THRIVE Agenda, but also very much of the moment that we're in right now.”