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Cory Booker’s 2020 policy agenda: ‘Baby bonds,’ criminal justice reform, action on climate change

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced on Feb. 1 that he is running for president in 2020. (Video: Reuters)

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is running for president on a plan to give newborn babies savings accounts worth tens of thousands for when they turn 18, a suite of criminal justice reforms and policies to enact “climate justice,” including a “Green New Deal” to confront climate change, according to his policy aides.

Booker, who announced his presidential bid Friday, will also campaign on a pilot program to create a federal jobs guarantee, a plan to stop anti-competitive hiring practices and monopolies, and a refundable housing credit program that would aim to help Americans struggling to pay rent.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey joins the 2020 presidential race

Booker’s sweeping criminal justice reform plans include legalizing marijuana, reducing workplace discrimination against those who have been convicted of crimes, giving federal money to areas the government determines were most hurt by the war on drugs, and improving the treatment of incarcerated women, among a host of other policies, aides said.

Booker has also announced his support for the Medicare-for-all plan by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to nationalize the health-insurance industry and provide universal government insurance.

“Booker and his team are engaged with tangible policies that can really change our trajectory of hoarding resources among the elite to a more egalitarian, inclusive economy,” said Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at the New School who has worked closely with Booker and his staff.

But Booker is likely to face intense criticism from the right over the costs of his proposed policies, which would add trillions to the federal debt at a time of already unusually high annual deficits.

And on the left, Booker has faced scrutiny primarily for some of his previous votes, actions and statements — including criticizing President Barack Obama for being too hard on Wall Street, taking millions of dollars in money from financial interests, voicing support for charter schools and voting against a plan to allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. (Booker’s office has said he supports drug importation from Canada, but with appropriate safeguards.)

Warren’s 2020 agenda: Break up monopolies, give workers control over corporations, fight drug companies

Sen. Kamala Harris’s 2020 policy agenda: $3 trillion tax plan, tax credits for renters, bail reform, Medicare-for-all

Here’s a look at some of the policy ideas Booker is hoping can power him to the White House.

Baby bonds. As first reported by Vox in October 2018, Booker is proposing “baby bonds” to give each child in the United States a savings account with $1,000. The account would grow in size every year, depending on the income of the child’s family, to as much as $50,000.

When the child turns 18, that money could be used for a number of things but not anything — including a down payment on a house or money to go to college.

One estimate from Columbia University researcher Naomi Zewde found that baby bonds would come close to wiping out the racial wealth gap, in part by increasing the assets held by young people across the board.

“It’s framed with the idea everybody should have a birthright to capital,” Hamilton said. “I’d call it racial-conscious economic justice.”

But the program could face some objections. For one, the full benefits of the program would not be disbursed for close to two decades after its passage, which may make it easier for future Republican governments to eliminate the program without political consequences. (The program will start disbursing smaller annual supplemental benefits to those who were born after the law’s enactment, to prevent a “high stakes cut off” in which kids born one year too late would miss out in the program’s large benefits. For example, a child who is 10 when the law is enacted will receive eight years worth of benefits at 18.) When the smaller but similar Child Trust Fund was implemented in Britain, it was axed during the Great Recession.

Some experts have also cast doubt on the extent to which the plan would reduce racial inequality. Matt Bruenig, founder of the socialist think tank the People’s Policy Project, has argued that the baby bonds proposal would “only modestly” reduce the racial wealth gap.

“The total wealth gap between the black and white population is over $15 trillion. A program that annually pays out $80 billion of race-neutral grants is not going to nearly close it,” Bruenig wrote.

Array of sweeping criminal justice proposals. Booker has also proposed a suite of measures on criminal justice, expressing outrage that America is home to “just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.”

The senator has introduced at least 10 separate bills regarding criminal justice, including legislation intended to end the prohibition on marijuana; reduce discrimination in the hiring of former convicts; bring transparency and data to police shootings; and improve funding for the offices of public defenders, who are often overworked and underfunded.

Criminal justice advocates in particular pointed to Booker’s “reverse mass incarceration” bill, which would give states financial incentives to reduce prison populations — a reversal of the 1994 crime bill that encouraged states to increase them, according to advocates.

“It’s the most potent bill introduced in Congress to date to actually end mass incarceration,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Booker also had a role in pushing the criminal justice overhaul signed by President Trump last fall, particularly its shortening of sentences for some offenders and expanded job training for prisoners, among other changes.

Booker’s aides say he successfully fought to include the effective elimination of solitary confinement of juveniles in detention, as well as bans on the shackling of pregnant inmates and guarantees of the provision of health-care products for incarcerated women. Federal officials have since mandated all women behind bars receive tampons and pads free of charge.

Monopoly power. Booker’s office has also released multiple proposals aimed at combating what they call the rising consolidation of various industries in the hands of a few companies.

Booker introduced one anti-merger bill that would impose a moratorium on mergers of large grocery companies and farms. In 2017, the senator spoke on the need for antitrust action against Google.

Matt Stoller, an antitrust advocate at the Open Markets Institute, credited Booker with linking a decline in independent black-owned businesses and small independent rural farms to corporate consolidation in a novel way.

“It’s a sophisticated populist argument about the coalition he’s trying to put together, and no one else has articulated that,” Stoller said.

Booker, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), has introduced legislation to ban “no poaching” agreements slipped into contracts at chains that prevent workers from switching between a company’s franchises. Critics say they drive down wages by inhibiting employee mobility. Non-poaching clauses are now included in up to 56 percent of large franchises, up about 20 percent from two decades ago, according to Alan Krueger of Princeton University and Eric Posner of the University of Chicago.

Jobs guarantee pilot. In April 2018, Booker said he would introduce a bill that would create a pilot program for a “job guarantee” in 15 rural and urban areas across the country.

The idea, according to job guarantee supporters, is to provide a buffer against economic downturns by having the government ensure that Americans who want a job can find one. Booker’s plan would create a three-year pilot through the Labor Department for jobs that pay at least $15 an hour — jobs that could then fulfill some certain social vacuum, like building parks or schools.

Sanders has also announced a plan to create a jobs guarantee for every U.S. worker. That program, which is not a pilot, would be much bigger in scope.

Medicare-for-all. In September 2018, Booker announced his support for Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill to nationalize health insurance.

Medicare-for-all is a proposal to move every American to a single government-run insurer that charges no deductibles or premiums. Doing so would significantly increase government expenditures — by as much as $33 trillion over a 10-year period, according to one conservative think tank’s estimate — while offering health insurance to the Americans who lack it and preventing millions more from being forced into medical bankruptcy. It would require enormous tax increases to finance, although supporters maintain that they would be offset by zeroing out every family’s spending on premiums and deductibles.

At least four other declared presidential candidates — including Sens. Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) — also say they support Medicare-for-all.