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Neel Kashkari: COVID-19 'Still In Charge' Of Economy; Vaccines Essential To Recovery

ST. PAUL (WCCO) -- Getting as many Minnesotans vaccinated as possible will be a key to accelerating the state forward on the path to economic recovery, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Neel Kashkari told a Minnesota Senate committee Tuesday, emphasizing lawmakers should also take steps on their own to boost child care, expand broadband and encourage employers to pay competitive wages.

"The virus is still charge of the economy," he said. "The sooner we can get the vast majority of Minnesotans and the vast majority of Americans vaccinated, the sooner we can get back to normal."

The state reports more than 447,600 Minnesotans have received one dose of the vaccine, according to the vaccine data dashboard, representing 8.1% of the total state population. A fraction of that—nearly 117,000—have received both doses and are more fully protected.

Minnesota is in the middle of the pack for vaccine distribution rates in all 50 states, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The state's current focus is ramping up vaccinations of residents 65+ and older who are more at risk of severe outcomes when contracting COVID-19.

"We shouldn't declare victory too early," Kashkari told the committee.

This comes amid the backdrop of President Biden trying to broker a deal for another round of federal stimulus. Biden and the Democrats wants a $1.9 trillion plan, but GOP senators are pushing for a package three times smaller at a price tag of $618 billion.

CBS News reports that Democrats appear ready to move forward with their proposal with or without Republican approval, clearing a procedural hurdle Tuesday that would enable such action.

Kashkari said the consensus among economists is the federal government wasn't aggressive enough with rescue aid last recession, leading to a 10-year recovery that this country cannot afford again.

"I look at this like wartime spending," he said of the trillions of dollars in stimulus that's already been spent on fighting the pandemic, with likely more coming. "That doesn't mean we can just spend, spend, spend forever. But right now this is like a war and I believe we have the capacity to do what we need to get through the war."

Lawmakers peppered Kashkari with questions about his observations and recommendations about the economic picture in Minnesota and the country—among them, a question about what the legislature can do to bolster the recovery.

His suggested state lawmakers making budget and policy decisions that would provide ongoing support of childcare, encourage employers to pay workers more and boost broadband access through further investment.

Robust, affordable child care options, he said, enable people to work—especially those sidelined because they need to watch their kids who are remote learning. Likewise, offering competitive wages and training for specific jobs will plug workforce gaps and he encouraged lawmakers to push that message.

And in a pandemic marked by telemedicine, tele-learn and telework, he said ensuring internet in every corner of Minnesota is critical.

"We knew that was important before the pandemic hit, but boy we sure know how important it is now," Kashkari said.

He added the state and country as a whole have made progress getting people back to work, but that the 6.7% national unemployment rate doesn't tell the full story. Accounting for those who have left the workforce, the Minnesota Fed estimates that number is more like 10%.

"That is still as bad as the worst labor market during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009," Kashkari said.

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