Opinion: Ga. lawmakers must put people first for an equitable recovery

Georgia's Gold Dome. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Georgia's Gold Dome. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

ANOTHER VIEW

In the wake of COVID-19, unprecedented levels of unemployment persist, weakness in health care infrastructure lingers and communities of color continue to face disparities as a result of years of systemic barriers to opportunity. Now that election cycle is over, amid political and racial rancor, Georgia lawmakers must choose a path that protects and secures the well-being of our democracy and its people. For the health of our state, we must ensure all Georgians can recover together.

Last year, state leaders responded to the pandemic by proposing historic cuts to Georgia’s budget instead of approving commonsense solutions to raise revenue. Faced with pressure from Georgians across the state, lawmakers walked back some of these proposals but still passed roughly $2.6 billion in cuts to state funding for programs and services that people rely on.

Taifa Butler
Taifa Butler

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Although some of those cuts are being restored in the amended budget for this year, steep cuts remain. For example, K-12 public schools must operate with $393 million less to educate children in every Georgia community. Services for adults with developmental disabilities and our colleges and universities are dealing with steep budget cuts as well. Meanwhile there are no plans to tap the state reserves — the rainy day fund — that sit at an all-time high of $2.7 billion. Georgians believe it’s raining.

Because the needs are great, state leaders must identify new, equitable revenue sources and restore programs hurt by deep, harmful budget cuts. Georgia needs health care for families, not unchecked tax incentives for big corporations. Our safety net should focus on supporting Georgians with crucial assistance, not creating barriers that deny people the opportunity to meet their basic needs and economic well-being .

As the 2021 legislative session continues, the best way to support recovery is for Georgia lawmakers to pass policies and solutions that focus on people.

What do people-first solutions look like? One example is a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), or Georgia Work Credit, which would reduce the amount of income tax owed by low- and middle-income families. EITCs are a proven tool that help boost health and economic outcomes for families.

Lawmakers can also provide additional money to school districts that educate students living in poverty by supporting HB 10. Georgia is one of only eight states in the U.S. that do not provide additional school funding to account for the disproportionate challenges poverty creates.

One clear key to Georgia’s recovery: championing anti-racist solutions that support Georgians of color. Prior to the pandemic, these communities already faced disproportionate barriers to quality education, economic security and more. People of color bore the brunt of the health and economic effects of COVID-19 and now, current unemployment data show that Black Georgians in particular are experiencing a slower recovery than white Georgians. That’s because Black Georgians are over-represented in industries facing economic hardship or that have not recovered yet. If we don’t target efforts, Georgians of color will not recover well. The General Assembly can influence this outcome.

In Georgia, aid programs like cash assistance, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), have been intentionally designed to prevent families of color in deep poverty from accessing and keeping aid. For example, the family cap, which bars families from receiving additional cash assistance for children born while their family already receives TANF, stems from erroneous, racist stereotypes like the “welfare queen.” Knocking down racist and classist barriers to safety net programs will help Georgia families recover and prosper.

The effects of COVID-19 are far from over. And the negative effects on Georgians and our economy remain unclear. What is clear from our recent statewide poll is the overwhelming support from Georgians who want leaders to choose people-first policies, including making college more affordable, increasing access to health care and more. The 2021 legislative session brings an opportunity for every Georgia lawmaker to act with uncompromising courage and boldness to protect the well-being of Georgians and prioritize an equitable recovery that puts people first.

Taifa Smith Butler is president and CEO, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

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