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In this interview conducted by Elisabeth Jacobs, WorkRise’s interim executive director, we discuss Cass’s views on the current economic crisis, the ways society has come to devalue certain kinds of labor, and the need for alternative pathways to college. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Elisabeth Jacobs: How has the pandemic and the economic shutdown shaped your thinking about the American worker, particularly those who’ve lost connections to employers or are at risk of dropping out of the labor market entirely? 

Oren Cass: The pandemic is unique in many respects as an economic phenomenon. Typically, in an economic downturn, the challenge is getting the economy moving again as quickly as possible. But that’s not what we’re trying to do right now. With the pandemic, we’re in this incredibly unprecedented policy environment. But afterwards, we’re going to find ourselves where we’ve been repeatedly: coming out of a recession in a very weak labor market.

Hopefully we’ve learned from the Great Recession and the incredibly slow recovery. Looking medium to long term, the reality is that, in our system, we get these business cycles that eventually produce tight labor markets and start the good outcomes we hope for, but they’re not sustained. It’s important to think about the economic challenge not in cyclical terms, but in secular terms, of what’s been going on throughout business cycles and crises, and we need to be reforming on that basis.

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