Finding Hope in Local Power: Advancing Racial, Gender, and Economic Justice in this Moment of Crisis

By Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy, and Anne Price, President

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Last week, the United States saw a staggering 3.28 million workers file for unemployment benefits, shattering the previous record of 695,000 claims filed in October of 1982. With businesses closed and people sheltering at home, there is little doubt that we are heading for a recession — and in a worst-case scenario, a steep recession followed by a sustained depression.

In an attempt to bandage this economic hemorrhage, the Federal Government passed the $2 trillion CARES package. More a relief package than an economic stimulus act, CARES provides emergency fixes, but does not go far enough. More phases to this legislation are hopefully coming as Congress dukes it out on the Hill to ensure all Americans are protected and cared for in what is an unprecedented global pandemic.

The good news is we don’t need to wait for Washington policymakers to make moves to protect Black and Brown communities and women who are facing higher levels of job loss and economic insecurity due to COVID-19. A lot can be done at the local and state levels, and localities are stepping up to fill much needed gaps to ensure racial and gender justice stays front and center in our response to the pandemic.

One of the biggest gaps in the CARES package is a complete absence in addressing criminal legal debt, a creation of racist and bad policymaking. The Great Recession resulted in a loss of revenue to municipalities, which then catalyzed municipal fiscal schemes that use the police to surveil Black and Brown communities and seize their resources. Following the 2008 financial crisis, municipalities in 47 states increased their civil and criminal fines and fees in order to fill their budget shortfalls, unloading their fiscal responsibilities onto their low-income and Black and Brown residents.

Black people in particular are overrepresented in our criminal legal system due to racial bias and anti-blackness within this system. This means that any direct money they may receive from the CARES package or any wages they may continue to receive could go directly to paying off these debts versus using it to put food on the table, keep the lights on, and maintain a roof over their heads. Government entities also can continue to levy fines and fees and collect on previous debt incurred from our unjust legal system, while also continuing to charge interest.

Thankfully, California is leading the charge in addressing this. We are proud steering committee members of Debt Free Justice California, and in the last weeks, our coalition successfully partnered with State Treasurer Betty Yee to place an order to suspend the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) from collection on debt imposed by state and local governments, including the juvenile and criminal legal systems and superior courts (traffic violations, infractions).

This means that the FTB can no longer garnish wages, intercept tax refunds, or levy bank accounts to pay off government imposed debt. This policy went into effect immediately on Friday, March 27, and will be instrumental in assuring Black and Brown communities can keep whatever resources they can cobble together to meet their very basic needs.

Cities across the nation are also stepping up by passing eviction moratoriums, rent freezes, and restrictions on towing and ticketing. Chicago is suspending some debt collection of late fees and defaults on payment plans for all city debt through the end of April — this includes parking tickets, red light camera violations, speed violations, and utility bills. Columbus, Ohio is suspending delinquent city income tax, utilities, and EMS transportation fees. Arizona is delaying evictions of people impacted by COVID-19 for up to 120 days. New York City is putting a hold on medical and student debt owed to the state, a moratorium on evictions, and a 90-day stay on mortgage payments and foreclosures.

This work is promising, and advocates claim even these measures don’t go far enough. In addition to these short term supports for immediate relief, local municipalities and jurisdictions must invest in long term solutions to address economic inequities to ensure women and Black and Brown communities can remain economically stable in both times of economic crisis and normalcy.

States and local governments also need more resources and support from the federal government, including more flexible access to funds already appropriated as well as new monies to help ensure that the most marginalized — women and Black and Brown communities — will be able to endure through this crisis.

There is more work to be done, and it is important to note that the gains we have made would not have happened without the existence of strong on-the-ground movement building and advocacy support. Now more than ever, we are seeing the importance of supporting local advocacy and organizing as an essential component to ensuring all of our communities are protected.

The pandemic has revealed how broken our economy and social programs are. Massive tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, financialization, and the dismantling of our nation’s social safety net and worker unions have been driving inequities for decades.

The fact of the matter is, there is a lot of power at the local level that is waiting to be seized and leveraged in this moment. We can simultaneously help our most marginalized while also building the foundation for a new, sustained vision of the type of structures, policies, and narratives we want to live by in the future. Local movements are places of hope and accountability in this moment.

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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