Hillary Clinton's Economic Inequality Whisperer

Heather Boushey's work on income inequality, paid family leave, and more may provide a preview of Hillary Clinton's 2016 messaging.

Heather Boushey sits on a panel in May for an event for the Roosevelt Institute. (National Journal)

In her first campaign video, Hillary Clinton talked about how "the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top" and how she wanted to be the champion for "everyday Americans." In one of her first campaign stops, she criticized outsized CEO compensation. And in March, before her official announcement, she said Americans should "think hard" about ways to make sure cities deal with inequality. But despite Clinton's talk, the actual specifics of what she would do as president to ameliorate growing wealth and income inequality in the United States have been quite thin.

To get an idea of what Clinton's proposals could be, talk to Heather Boushey, an economist who's regarded as a valuable adviser to the former secretary of state on economic policy.

"In terms of what I have been talking to her about, it has been about the big questions about what we should do for our economy and how we should think about the interventions that policymakers should make," Boushey told National Journal.

Boushey, who is advising Clinton in a private capacity, serves as executive director and chief economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which aims to make wonky research tangible for policymakers. In a way, that's what Boushey is working to do for Clinton. Boushey has researched the role of women in the workforce, income inequality, and paid family leave—all things that Clinton will be talking about in 2016.

Elisabeth Jacobs, senior director for policy and academic programs at the Washington Center, says Boushey is good at it, too. Boushey and Jacobs once explained French economist Thomas Piketty's landmark book on wealth inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to Sen. Angus King. That, Jacobs said, was like giving the senator "the Cliff Notes" version, and then starting "a conversation about what this might actually mean based on what he was thinking."

"She's really exceptional in doing that translational work between the serious economic and other social science academic work into the policy space," Jacobs says of Boushey.

Boushey's work on paid family leave has lent some potential clarity to the candidate's policy gaps. Clinton hasn't said much about how she would enact the policy, and Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University School of Social Work, says it's difficult to get that done at the national level versus at the state level. Three states that have started paid family leave policies have used their already-existing temporary disability insurance programs to do so, and only five states and Puerto Rico have temporary disability insurance (Washington State had its program signed in 2007 but is not yet in effect.).

Boushey thinks a national paid family leave policy is possible. In a 2012 paper for Center for American Progress, where she is a senior fellow, Boushey laid out plan for a paid family leave program that would be administered by the Social Security Administration.

On CEO pay, Boushey again gets more detailed.

"There's a lot of wiggle room to be taxing at the top, but how you do that actually has implications for compensation," Boushey says, citing a study by Piketty, University of California, Berkeley's Emmanuel Saez, and Harvard's Stefanie Stantcheva. Boushey had the economists' study out in front of her during our interview. "There's a lot of evidence that the way we've been structuring tax policy vis"“à"“vis those at the top is not creating the right incentives for investment, [research and development] and shared prosperity," she said.

Boushey is glad that the wealth gap has come to the forefront of the 2016 political debate.

"I have to say that it is beyond exciting to see things that you have been, for me, working on spreadsheets for and thinking about for a really long time actually entering the political discourse," she said.

Boushey said recoveries from the last three national recessions, including the most recent one, have seen anemic job growth, which has made people more aware of the gap between rich and poor—and what that means for the economy.

"What you're seeing are repeated recoveries that just aren't cutting it," she said. "We've been like ostriches putting our heads in the sand going, 'What has changed in the past two decades?'" Boushey answers her own question: "Well, one of the biggest things is inequality."

Other researchers emphasize Boushey's realism and attempts to convert ideas that are being discussed in research circles into tangible policies.

"Heather really has been the person over the last several years who has taken the lead of just thinking really hard what it would take to enact paid family leave on the national level," said Jane Waldfogel, a professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. "She has her feet on the ground and has a very firm grasp of the economic principles."

For Boushey, an important part of being an income inequality-focused economist interested is trying to make the results of her research tangible for the average citizen.

"Where I think you hit the sweet spot in research is when what you can actually tease out of these datasets actually resonates with people's real-lived experiences," Boushey said. "For me, those moments come when I talk about my own research with my allergist, with my mom, and my mother-in-law."

By translating income inequality to people's experiences, Boushey could help Clinton craft a message on inequality that could appeal to ordinary Americans—and present inequality not through a divisive prism of class war, but as a matter of economic security.