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May 18, 2021

More Than Recovery: Reflecting on a Stronger Future for the Commonwealth

The COVID-19 pandemic has unearthed inequities with deep roots. Intentional policy decisions made over generations have maintained a society where a few thrive while many do not. One year after the pandemic took hold in the United States, millions of families report that they do not have enough money, resources, or support to pay for basic household necessities. Many people are still unable to put enough food on the table, see a doctor, or take time off of work to care for themselves or their loved ones. For people with low incomes and Black and Latinx people in particular, the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, paired with the recent high-profile murders of Black people at the hands of police, have worsened unequal outcomes and increased emotional trauma. In order to uproot and repair these deeply rooted inequities it will take transformational change. More specifically, it will take sustained advocacy that is rooted not in the old systems of inequity but in the power and vision of those most impacted, paired with the will and commitment of decision-makers to help make real change.

Even before the pandemic, Black and Latinx people faced tremendous barriers in the economy. The unemployment rate for Black people has historically been much higher than the rate for white people. This disparity exists across every level of educational attainment and is not by chance: research using job applications that provide clues about race and ethnicity to test for discrimination shows that employers are still less likely to hire Black and Latinx applicants than white applicants despite similar education and work experience. And in a new problem, algorithmic-assisted hiring at big corporations may be unintentionally reproducing past discriminatory decisions. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the overall unemployment rate averaged 3.7%. Breaking out the data shows that the unemployment rate for white non-Hispanic people was 3.0%, while the unemployment rate for Black people was twice as high, at an average of 6.1% over the year. And due to systemic racism, Black and Latinx workers are often paid less than their white counterparts and have less access to resources like health care and paid leave. It should therefore come as no surprise that Black and Latinx workers are more likely to live in poverty, and having lower incomes often precludes the ability to save and build cash reserves for their families. Returning to baseline after the pandemic is not good enough when the baseline means leaving some people behind. We need more than recovery, we need to reevaluate and restructure many of the policies we have in place that have erected barriers to economic opportunity for so many people in Virginia. Change is attainable if we make it happen.

In her new book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee notes that it is possible to build an economy where everyone can thrive. In fact, we know how to do it, but racism and prejudice often stand in the way of collective progress. McGhee notes that economic opportunity does not need to be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. The key to success is not hiding from the ways that policy solutions will help reduce barriers for communities of color and keeping people and communities at the center of policy decisions, regardless of race, income, gender, and zip code. It will take people setting aside their differences and coming together to collectively advocate for policies that provide everyone with the resources and support they need to thrive.

There is a strong tradition of people making change in Virginia by joining together. In 1879, the multi-racial Readjuster Party came to power in Virginia. By 1881, the party had taken the majority in both chambers of the state legislature, the governorship, both Senate seats in the U.S Congress and a majority of Virginia’s congressional delegation. The primary goal of the Readjuster Party was to scale down Virginia’s debt and they did, while also increasing state revenue in order to pay for critical services like public schools for Black and white children. They instituted criminal justice reform, eliminated the poll tax, and increased voter participation across racial lines. To be frank, the party was not anti-racist, but they came together to advance collective goals. However, many of the advancements of the Readjuster Party were halted and overturned as backlash to the multi-racial nature of the coalition.

We can point to more recent changes in Virginia that were only made possible with collective advocacy. In 2018, the Health Care for All Virginians Coalition, composed of 110 organizations across the state who work together to advocate for accessible and affordable quality health care for all, were successful in advocating for the expansion of Medicaid. With the expansion, over 550,000 people in Virginia are now connected to comprehensive and affordable health care. Lawmakers voted to raise Virginia’s minimum wage above the federal floor in 2020, after years of advocates calling for better wages. In the summer of 2020, people throughout Virginia took to the street and to meetings with their lawmakers to hold them accountable for consequential reform of the criminal legal system like limiting the use of choke holds and banning no-knock warrants. In 2021, Virginia became the first state in the south to pass its own Voting Rights Act, creating broad voter protections.

We know the formula for transformational change because we have done it — people from diverse communities across the commonwealth coming together to demand it, committed advocates who are connected and listening to impacted communities, and lawmakers who are willing to make bold, anti-racist, and intentional decisions that will have lasting impact. 

It’s time to do it again, Virginia. Public policy can be used to create a more equitable and forward-facing path out of the pandemic and economic downturn. The funds received from the federal government as a result of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) can be used in innovative and transformative ways to provide the support people need to help their families thrive. We need to invest in school infrastructure so that our children have safe places to learn, provide direct aid, and partner with local organizations that know how to reach the most isolated and struggling families. We can improve systems like the state’s unemployment insurance program and start new job programs that create good jobs that provide a meaningful path into or back into the labor market, particularly for workers who face extra barriers even in good times. We can and should fund robust outreach operations focused on publicizing available aid and resources and connecting people to that aid, maximizing the impact of these crucial emergency investments. 

Virginia lawmakers can also choose to help more families and communities thrive by conforming to important tax changes made in ARP like expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and use future revenue growth to make the state’s EITC refundable, making sure that families are able to receive the full value of the credit. We could also use revenue growth to create our own state Child Tax Credit and put more money into the pockets of the low-income Virginians who need it most. And we can strengthen Virginia’s revenue system in order to sustain transformative, long-term investments in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, and low wealth communities. 

With all of us coming together and advocating for transformational change, we can make sure that we do not go back to the status quo, but that we build the Virginia we want to see moving forward — a Virginia where all of us can thrive, without exceptions.

Budget & Revenue, Economic Opportunity, Health Care

Ashley Kenneth

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