President Joe Biden takes office with some important advantages — namely Democratic control of the House and Senate to help him push his administration’s agenda forward. But that doesn’t make the confluence of crises he faces any less daunting: a raging pandemic, economic upheaval, years lost in the effort to combat climate change, persisting racial inequities and the internal threat of domestic extremism.
“The state of the nation today, [there’s] no time to waste … get to work immediately,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday, as he signed several executive orders just hours after being sworn in.
PBS NewsHour breaks down some numbers that illuminate some of the challenges ahead as Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris kick off their first 100 days in leadership.
2.3 million Americans vaccinated so far
As of Jan. 21, 2021, around 17.5 million COVID-19 shots have been administered across the country. Both of the current FDA-approved vaccines require two doses to be effective — 15 million people have so far received “one or more doses,” while around 2.3 million have received two.
Those who live or work in long-term care facilities like nursing homes were prioritized during the first round of vaccine distribution. That’s because residents and staff within those facilities so far account for more than a third of confirmed deaths that have been attributed to the disease in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project.
After the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved for emergency use in the final weeks of 2020, the Trump administration set a goal to deliver shots in the arms of 20 million people by the end of the year. But due to distribution hurdles, only 14 percent of that number were vaccinated by Dec. 31, 2020.
Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100 million people in the U.S. over the course of his first 100 days in office. But getting the nation’s sluggish vaccine rollout off the ground will require better coordination, communication and resource-sharing between all levels of government.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Associated Press in early January that between 70 to 85 percent of the population, or around 280 million people, “will need to be vaccinated to achieve ‘herd immunity.” An effective and efficient rollout could meet that target “by the start of next fall.”
— Isabella Isaacs-Thomas
A patchwork of lockdown rules
At the height of state-imposed lockdowns in the spring, more than 310 million Americans were under stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders. As COVID-19 surges to its worst heights across the U.S., 35 states and Washington, D.C. have imposed new lockdown restrictions. In four states — Illinois, New Mexico, California, and Oregon — businesses are mostly closed, while commerce is mostly open in 32 others. Eleven states are operating without any lockdown restrictions and four have paused their plans to reopen. Thirty-four states and Puerto Rico have mandatory mask requirements.
California, Ohio and North Carolina are the only three states under a stay-at-home order, although residents in Kentucky, Wisconsin and New Mexico have been advised to stay at home. Only 12 states require mandatory quarantine for travelers, including Hawaii, the state with the lowest number of COVID infections per capita.
Arizona, a current COVID-19 hotspot, has not tightened restrictions despite its latest surge. While gatherings larger than 50 are prohibited, restaurants, casinos, gyms and movie theaters remain open.
The power to open or close states lies with the governors, but Biden has begun executing a coordinated national response to the pandemic, marking a clear divergence from the Trump administration’s approach. On Day One of his presidency, Biden urged Americans to wear masks for 100 days in public, and signed executive orders mandating masks in some settings and on federal property. He has also set a goal nationwide for K-8 schools to reopen within the same 100-day period.
— Dorothy Hastings
9.8 million lost jobs
The economic fallout at the onset of the pandemic resulted in the highest unemployment rate in at least 70 years. Now, as 2021 opens, the U.S. economy still has 9.8 million fewer jobs compared to last February, and 10.7 million workers are officially unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But some estimate that number to be much higher. The Economic Policy Institute calculated that around 26.8 million Americans, or 15.8 percent of the workforce, have lost employment, hours, or pay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new poll from PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist, 32 percent of Americans say they or someone in their household has lost a job or income due to the pandemic.
2020 started with an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent that jumped to 14.7 percent as states entered lockdowns in April.
According to Mark Hamrick, Bankrate’s Washington bureau chief and senior economic analyst, a key part of economic recovery this spring depends on more federal aid, including stimulus checks, and more Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. Biden plans to extend unemployment benefits through September and enact a third round of COVID-19 relief legislation, not to mention ramping up a national vaccination effort.
“If the pandemic can be successfully addressed from a medical standpoint, that will cure a lot of literal and proverbial ills that we’ve experienced,” Hamrick told NewsHour. “And so that’s the most important thing toward getting the economy back on a more constructive track.”
— Dorothy Hastings
$1 trillion for the richest and a recession for the poor
While tens of millions were suffering from lost jobs and lost income this year, the wealth of America’s billionaires increased by more than $1 trillion, according to the left-leaning think tank Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness. The net worth of this group of 651 people grew from $2.95 trillion in mid-March to $4.01 trillion in early December. But that dramatic figure is only one of the ways the pandemic has exacerbated income inequality.
“The [economic effect of the] pandemic was basically over for high-income workers by the middle of June. But low-income workers are still in the midst of a very, very serious recession,” said John Friedman, economics professor at Brown University and a founding co-director of Opportunity Insights at Harvard University.
Friedman says that of all the economic challenges that Biden faces as he enters the White House, the growth of inequality is the biggest. He points to the bull stock market, which has steadily grown after a brief dip last March, while others have had major challenges accessing sufficient health care or education. “We need to be thinking about more than just making up for the last 10 months, in terms of really fixing inequality,” Friedman told PBS NewsHour. “This is something that has been a growing problem in this country for 40 years.”
Between 1989 and 2016, the Pew Research Center found the wealth gap between the nation’s richest and poorer families had more than doubled. In 2018, the top 20 percent richest households in the U.S. earned 52 percent of all income.
Under Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, many Americans can expect a $1,400 stimulus check, which could help millions of Americans who are behind on bills and rent. Goldman Sachs analysts expect the overall stimulus plan will help the country’s economic recovery — they have upped their growth forecast from 6.4 percent to 6.6 percent in 2021, compared to a 4.6 percent forecasted contraction in 2020.
— Vignesh Ramachandran
$28 trillion in debt
At nearly $28 trillion, the national debt reached by the end of December represents a $7 trillion increase from the year before, a high only rivaled by the sum amassed after World War II in 1946. T Additionally, the national deficit, or losses, grew from $984 billion in 2019 to $3.1 trillion in 2020.
A September report from the Government Accountability Office said the 2020 increases are largely due to federal borrowing and spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The office has projected the federal debt to skyrocket further in years to come.
However, some economists say the large number shouldn’t be a worry, and that its size reflects the timing of taxes more than an economic crisis. High spending with lower taxes will simply mean more borrowing that will be paid off by higher taxes in the future. They also argue the economic crisis merits high spending to prevent greater suffering.
State and local governments’ tax revenue fell 18 percent during the second quarter of the fiscal year, or the first three months of the pandemic, according to a December report from the Urban Institute. Tax revenue had risen an annual 6.9 percent the four prior quarters prior. A report by the Brookings Institution said state and local governments are facing a different kind of financial stress amid the pandemic than the federal government because most have balanced-budget requirements.
Biden’s proposed plan to address the economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic comes with $400 billion to directly address the pandemic and $350 billion to alleviate state and local budget shortfalls.
— Chloe Jones
10.2 million acres burned and 13 hurricanes
In 2020, more than 58,250 wildfires burned 10.2 million acres in the Western U.S., another record-setting year that displaced residents and charred communities in California and other states. As of Jan. 12, large swaths of the American West are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions.
Meanwhile, the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season drenched parts of the East Coast with 30 named storms, the highest on record. Thirteen became hurricanes — the second-highest number on record. Researchers predict the 2021 hurricane season will also most likely be above average.
The increases in wildfire size and intensity over the last few years have been unprecedented, said Alex Hall, director of the Center for Climate Science at UCLA, and a warming climate doesn’t bode well for wildfire risk. “The fuels are drier, the winds are hotter when they blow, fanning the flames. Conditions that lead to fire are more likely when temperatures are warmer.” The economic costs of 2020’s wildfires is estimated between $10 and $20 billion, he added.
Just hours into his presidency, Biden signed an executive order Wednesday to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international agreement, which includes almost every country in the world.
Returning to the pact is a symbolic step in putting the U.S. back in the global game to help solve the climate crisis, said Bob Perciasepe, who served as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration. He said he hopes the government will also support green infrastructure and incentives around products like electric vehicles.
— Vignesh Ramachandran
Opioid deaths in the shadow of the pandemic
In the early months of the pandemic, as the U.S. was confronting the ways coronavirus had upended normal life, drug overdose deaths were spiking, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between March and June, 6,954 people died of an opioid overdose — an estimate that is likely an undercount — compared to 2,815 deaths in the same amount of time before the pandemic. Washington, D.C., saw drug overdose deaths increase nearly 60 percent — the largest change in the country.
While drug overdose deaths began to rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have accelerated at a “concerning” rate since March 2020, when COVID-19 mitigation measures began, a CDC report found.
Biden’s plans to address the ongoing opioid epidemic include prioritizing treatment over incarceration for drug offenses, bolstering the Affordable Care Act, and investing $125 billion toward treatment, prevention and recovery over 10 years.
— Chloe Jones
More than 1,000 fatal police encounters
In a year when the country underwent a notable shift in the national conversation about racial discrimination and excessive use of force by law enforcement, there were more than 1,000 fatal police encounters, according to some estimates.
The most comprehensive tracking of police use of force doesn’t come from federal or state government agencies, but from civilians and news organizations. Fatal Encounters is a database created by former journalist D. Brian Burghart that seeks to include every police interaction that results in a civilian death going back to 2000.
Since that time, the number of fatal police encounters has likely increased nationwide, even as incidents of violent and property crime have decreased. The number of “intended use of force” incidents — which can include gunshots, beatings, tasering and others — totaled 987 in 2012, according to the Fatal Encounters database. In 2020 it was 1,136. Another database maintained by The Washington Post shows the number of fatal police shootings remained fairly steady in the last five years, with 994 shootings in 2015 and 1,004 in 2020.
The 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, launched the Movement for Black Lives into the national consciousness, and tensions hit an apogee last spring when police killed George Floyd, igniting a new wave of nationwide protests.
After Floyd’s death, Biden said he didn’t think firing the four officers was sufficient. “They have to be held more fully accountable,” he said, in order to get to the root of the problem.
Some police departments around the country have restricted or redefined their use of force practices, Burghart noted. But data collection stalled under the Trump administration, as well as the kind of investigations that are used to reduce racial discrimination. Biden, who has acknowledged that there is systemic injustice in law enforcement, has called for robust police investigations into unconstitutional police conduct and more data aggregation.
Burghart doesn’t believe the federal government can realistically require data reporting from the country’s more than 18,000 police agencies, but he thinks state attorneys general could strengthen data collection efforts.
— Candice Norwood
Falling life expectancy
Less than a year after a national state of emergency was declared over COVID-19, the nation has recorded more than 24 million cases and more than 400,000 people have lost their lives to the disease. That figure is probably an undercount given that it took months for the U.S. to ramp up its testing infrastructure, meaning some died without a confirmed diagnosis.
The virus has taken the lives of a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and Latino or Hispanic people relative to the total population. People within those groups are more than 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to white, non-Hispanic people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A recent study from researchers and Princeton University and the University of Southern California found that COVID-19 may reduce life expectancy in the U.S. by a medium estimate of 1.13 years for 2020. But the increase in years of life lost won’t affect all Americans equally. That same estimate projects that Black and Latino life expectancies could respectively decline by 2.10 and 3.05 years, compared to a 0.68 year decline for whites.
Even if, under the Biden administration’s leadership, the U.S. gains greater control over the virus this year, its deadly legacy may continue, the authors noted in their report — not just from more COVID-19 fatalities, but also the “long-term health, social, and economic impacts of the pandemic.”
— Isabella Isaacs-Thomas