The year 2020 will be remembered as one of the most eventful years in memory. The world experienced a pandemic that caused businesses and borders to close, pushing medical systems to the brink, collapsing economies, and causing the deaths of over a million people. The Black Lives Matter movement and racial tensions came to the forefront in American cities large and small after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police. And the year ended with a tumultuous U.S. presidential election, which saw Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump despite the latter refusing to concede.
At the end of this tumultuous year, Brookings Now takes a look back at the most popular items of 2020 authored by our scholars and published on the Brookings website. These do not include books published by the Brookings Institution Press; for highlights, see the Press’s 2020 holiday reading list.
10. What is the Trump administration’s track record on the environment?
Foreign Policy Fellow Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at Brookings, documented President Donald Trump’s track record on the environment. She counted 74 actions to weaken environmental project by the publication in August of her Voter Vitals paper for the Policy 2020 project, and noted that “President Trump is particularly focused on rolling back policy to address climate change, which is possible because Congress has been unwilling to enshrine such policy in law.” See also from Samantha Gross, “Why are fossil fuels so hard to quit?,” a Foreign Policy Essay.
9. Examining the Black-white wealth gap
The Hamilton Project’s Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh examined the “staggering” racial disparities of wealth in the United States. The net worth of the average white family, they noted, is nearly ten times larger than that of the average Black family. “The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens,” they wrote, arguing for, among other policy responses, increased taxation of income from wealth. See also the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative.
8. More pain than gain: How the US-China trade war hurt America
Trade between China and the U.S. became a more contentious issue during the Trump administration when Washington slapped tariffs on a number of Chinese imports, and trade negotiations between the two countries devolved into a trade war. Foreign Policy Fellow Ryan Hass and expert Abraham Denmark detailed how the trade war with China hurt America, writing that “the ultimate results of the phase one trade deal between China and the United States—and the trade war that preceded it—have significantly hurt the American economy without solving the underlying economic concerns that the trade war was meant to resolve.” Brookings recently published the final papers in its multi-year Global China Initiative.
7. Foresight Africa: Top priorities for the continent 2020-2030
In Foresight Africa 2020, experts from the Africa Growth Initiative and also from outside Brookings discussed the priorities of the African continent over the next decade. Experts outlined six overarching themes in the report: achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, deepening good governance, leveraging demographic trends for economic transformation, combating climate change, capturing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and bolstering Africa’s role in the global economy.
6. Biden-voting counties equal 70% of America’s economy. What does this mean for the nation’s political-economic divide?
After the 2020 elections, Metropolitan Policy Program researchers Mark Muro, Eli Byerly Duke, Yang You, and Robert Maxim conducted a detailed look at how counties across the country voted, discovering that the economic rift of 28% between Trump and Clinton counties had widened since 2016. For the current election year, they found that: “Biden’s winning base in 509 counties encompasses fully 71% of America’s economic activity, while Trump’s losing base of 2,547 counties represents just 29% of the economy.”
5. COVID-19’s essential workers deserve hazard pay. Here’s why—and how it should work
Frontline workers risk their lives daily to deliver essential services during the pandemic. Metropolitan Policy Program Rubenstein Fellow Molly Kinder argues that these essential workers deserve better compensation, “A fair and equitable system for hazard pay should compensate essential, frontline workers who face significant exposure to COVID-19 through their jobs.” Visit the Metropolitan Policy Program for the most up-to-date information about the pandemic’s impact on the economy and workers.
4. [COULD] President Trump win an Electoral College majority in 2020?
This year’s U.S. presidential election was one of the most contentious in recent history, with President Trump refusing to concede more than a month after Election Day, and after the Electoral College gave 306 votes to Joe Biden. But prior to November 3, there was much speculation about whether President Trump could be reelected again without a majority of the popular vote; Governance Studies Senior Fellow William Galston correctly predicted he could not: “To win reelection, President Trump will have to reduce Joe Biden’s national vote advantage, which now stands at more than 10 percentage points, by about 8 points during the final two weeks of the campaign, an accomplishment for which there’s no clear precedent in American history.”
3. Low unemployment isn’t worth much if the jobs barely pay
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, unemployment was at an all-time low in the U.S. But Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman explained that that wasn’t the whole picture. Despite more people having jobs, many were (and are) underpaid. “In a recent analysis, we found that 53 million workers ages 18 to 64—or 44% of all workers—earn barely enough to live on,” according to Ross and Bateman. “Millions of hardworking American adults struggle to eke out a living and support their families on very low wages.” Read also their later piece, “We can’t recover from a coronavirus recession without helping young workers.”
2. How does vote-by-mail work and does it increase election fraud?
Darrell West, vice president and director of Brookings’s Governance Studies program, detailed in a Voter Vitals paper a hot-topic issue of 2020: voting by mail. Although voting by mail has existed for decades in various places, it became essential during a pandemic, and many states expanded their vote-by-mail capabilities leading up to the election. Despite some fears about fraud and security, West argued that “there is no evidence that mail balloting increases electoral fraud as there are several anti-fraud protections built into the process designed to make it difficult to impersonate voters or steal ballots.” West also authored the election-relevant paper, “It’s time to abolish the Electoral College.”
1. What does ‘defund the police’ mean and does it have merit?
In the most read piece of Brookings content this year, David M. Rubenstein Fellow Rashawn Ray unpacked what “defund the police means” in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. As Ray noted: “Different from abolishing and starting anew, defunding police highlights fiscal responsibility, advocates for a market-driven approach to taxpayer money, and has some potential benefits that will reduce police violence and crime.” Also, watch Ray’s video on how to improve police accountability.