Advancing a People-First Economy

A Letter from the President of the American Academy

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Commission on Reimagining Our Economy

I am pleased to present Advancing a People-First Economy, the final report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on Reimagining Our Economy.

This landmark report arrives at a challenging juncture for the American economy and the American people. On the surface, the economy appears to be as strong as ever. Except for the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation has enjoyed a period of growth that has benefited many Americans. Even before the expansion of the Child Tax Credit during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of child poverty had gradually declined over the last few decades. And as of this writing, low unemployment rates have increased wages and opportunities for workers at the lower end of the income spectrum.

But it has become clear that the national story of the economy is not sufficient. Since 2020, the Academy and this Commission have consulted with roughly two hundred experts and conducted thirty-one listening sessions around the country. Apparent from our research is that, even with many encouraging trends, too many Americans have not fully benefited from an ostensibly strong national economy. Geography represents one of the most glaring challenges, as entire swaths of the country have been left out of the economic and technological progress of the last few decades. Too many households live in economic precarity, and the disproportionate lack of economic security and opportunity for Black, Latino, and Native households remains a blemish on our entire country.

These challenges are closely related to the challenges facing American democracy. In 2020, the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship released its final report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. That report diagnoses a host of problems facing the nation’s constitutional democracy and offers solutions to build more robust political institutions, a healthier civic culture, and a more vibrant civil society. In its opening pages, Our Common Purpose acknowledges the role of economic issues—particularly the role of economic inequality—in fostering the challenges facing the nation’s institutions and its democracy. It does not, however, offer recommendations to address economic issues. This led the Academy to launch the Commission on Reimagining Our Economy to build on Our Common Purpose and to complement its proposals. A healthy economy requires a healthy democracy, and a healthy democracy requires a healthy economy. Taken together, the two reports offer a roadmap to democratic and economic institutions that serve the common good.

Since its founding in 1780, the Academy has sought to bring together leaders from multiple disciplines and across the political spectrum to tackle the biggest questions facing the nation. That is what we have done here. In particular, the Commission on Reimagining Our Economy calls for a change of national priorities for the economy. Rather than focus on how the economy is doing, the Commission seeks to direct a focus onto how Americans are doing. The Commission’s efforts to create a more people-centric economy are guided by its key values: security, opportunity and mobility, and democracy. These values resonate across our diverse Commission, and we believe these values are foundational to any healthy political economy.

The makeup of this Commission is notable. Other projects focused on the economy tend to lean on economists, business leaders, and policy experts. The work of these projects is vital for the nation and has been crucial for informing the Academy’s efforts. Our Commission, too, includes leading economists, business leaders, and policy experts. But we also made a point of bringing together Academy members and other experts not typically involved in these kinds of economic projects, including religious leaders, novelists, playwrights, and philosophers. The Commission’s crossdisciplinary makeup was vital for shaping its conversations with Americans around the country and its diagnosis of the challenges facing the economy. It was also key to identifying recommendations. The Academy’s aim is not to provide technocratic solutions, but bold ideas and broad frameworks that provide new ways of looking at—and solving—the nation’s biggest challenges. The composition of this Commission was vital for ensuring that its recommendations remain attuned to the needs of the American people.

The Commission recognizes that the enactment of many of its recommendations faces barriers.  The Commission makes its recommendations with a full understanding of these barriers, and with an eagerness to shine a light on a slate of promising ideas that received support from its crosspartisan members. Many of these recommendations will require the type of democratic reform called for in Our Common Purpose. The Academy is committed to ensuring its reports have impact. We look forward to a phase of work devoted to identifying these specific barriers and finding ways to overcome them to help implement the recommendations in this report.

In addition to Advancing a People-First Economy, I am pleased to present two other Commission products that reflect the mission of taking a people-focused approach to economic life. The first is a new county-level measurement of American well-being. While traditional metrics capture economic growth or the state of the stock market, the Commission’s new measurement, the CORE Score, speaks to how Americans live: their economic security and opportunity, their health, and their political voice. The Score is available at and described in further detail here. Additionally, the Academy recently released Faces of America: Getting By in Our Economy, a photojournal capturing median-income Americans in four communities: Williamsport, Pennsylvania; Dearborn, Michigan; Houston, Texas; and Tulare County, California. Paired with quotes from the Commission’s listening sessions, the images offer a nuanced look at the priorities and problems of the communities we aim to help with the recommendations in this report.

There are many people to thank for their dedication to this Commission and to the work of building a healthier political economy. My thanks to the Commission’s three cochairs, with whom I had the great pleasure of working for the last three years: Katherine Cramer, the Virginia Sapiro Professor of Political Science and Natalie C. Holton Chair of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; Ann Fudge, former CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands; and Nicholas Lemann, the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. The Academy is also grateful to all members of the Commission for lending their time and expertise to this effort (see Appendix B for a complete list of Commission members).

We are also grateful to many other people for lending their experience and expertise to the project. Special thanks go to the current and past members of the Academy’s Board of Directors, Council, and Trust for their support of this Commission. Our appreciation also goes to the many Academy members and other experts who helped advise this project, both during our yearlong scoping period and following the Commission launch. We owe a debt of gratitude, as well, to the Americans across the country who participated in the Commission’s listening sessions, as well as individuals in the four communities who served as subjects for the photojournal project. I would also like to thank the individuals and organizations that have generously supported the Commission: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The C&P Buttenwieser Foundation, Omidyar Network, David M. Rubenstein, and Patti Saris.

Finally, my thanks to the Academy staff members who worked to support this Commission over the last three years: Jonathan Cohen, Victor Lopez, Kelsey Ensign, Darshan Goux, Elizabeth Youngling, and Katherine Gagen, as well as Tania Munz, Peter Robinson, and Alison Franklin. Thank you, too, to our publications team—Phyllis Bendell, Key Bird, Scott Raymond, and Peter Walton—for their fantastic work on this report, as well as Academy staff from many other departments whose efforts helped make this work possible.

We look forward to advancing the recommendations in this report and, in the process, helping to build an economy rooted in the well-being of the American people.

David W. Oxtoby
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences