Late last month, Janet L. Yellen was sworn in as the 78th Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury by Kamala D. Harris, the newly inaugurated vice president of the U.S.
Yellen and Harris are pioneers and it was a breakthrough amid a great deal of turmoil. But this glass-ceiling shattering moment in history received a flicker of the media spotlight even as it’s clear that Yellen is on a mission.
On her first day in office, she sent a letter to her staff of 84,000, in which she candidly reviewed the major challenges ahead for the Treasury Department.
In fact, Yellen likened the current situation to the Great Recession when as part of the Federal Reserve (president, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, 2004–2010, and vice chair, Board of Governors, 2010–2014), she worked closely with Treasury staff to pull the economy out of a ditch.
“Now we need to do it again,” Yellen says in her letter. “Of course, the current crisis is very different from 2008. But the scale is as big, if not bigger. The pandemic has wrought wholesale devastation on the economy. Entire industries have paused their work. Sixteen million Americans are still relying on unemployment insurance. Food bank shelves are going empty.”
The letter adds, “We must help the American people endure the final months of this pandemic by making sure they have roofs over their head and food on the table. Then, we must assist them in getting back to work safely.”
In addition to helping economically displaced people, the Treasury Department must assist with three other crises, Yellen says.
“The country is also facing a climate crisis, a crisis of systemic racism, and an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years,” according to the letter.
Yellen notes that “long before COVID-19 infected a single individual, we were living in a K-shaped economy, one where wealth built on wealth while certain segments of the population fell further and further behind. I believe our Department can play a major role in addressing each of these crises. … I believe economic policy can be a potent tool to improve society. We can — and should — use it to address inequality, racism, and climate change.”
To help with the ambitious goals of the Biden team, Treasury will inclusively “tap the full measure of the institution’s talent and expertise. That is why over the next few weeks, I plan to meet with each office and bureau. I want to hear from you about what needs changing and what we can do better,” Yellen says.
The new head of the Treasury Department acknowledges that her empathy emanates from her father.
“My father had such a visceral reaction to economic hardship. Those moments remain some of the clearest of my early life, and they are likely why, decades later, I still try to see my science — the science of economics — the way my father saw his: as a means to help people,” Yellen says. “I know that many of you share this sensibility. You see economic policy as a way to improve people’s lives; you see the humanity beneath the data.”