As people across America and the world grapple with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, some of the nation’s African American mayors are calling fora targeted approach to boost and sustain Black communities.
The African American Mayors Association (AAMA), which represents about 500 Black mayors nationwide—many of them African American women–advocates for and takes positions on public policy issues that impact cities of all sizes.
Recently, the mayoral association wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Congressional leaders, calling upon them to address what they term the “disparate impact COVID-19 will have on the African American community.”
The mayors believe there is a “substantial likelihood that African Americans will be disproportionately impacted by negative health outcomes and economic losses due to the coronavirus.”
The mayors raise the specter that African Americans could be at greater risk of death from COVID-19 due to inequitable access to healthcare and want racial data regarding those diagnosed with COVID-19. They also point out that many Black Americans are still recovering from the 2008 housing market crash that led to higher foreclosure rates and credit woes. Moreover, they add that African Americans disproportionately hold low-wage and hourly jobs that could be lost amid the economic fallout caused by the crisis.
“Whether we’re talking about small business owners like barbershops and beauty salons that are impacted by mandated business closures, or the need for enhanced broadband so students can access the Internet to study or people have the ability to do virtual doctor’s visits, African American communities will need extra support,” Stephanie Mash Sykes, Esq., executive director of AAMA, tells ESSENCE.
To date, Congress has taken action around the coronavirus by passing three bipartisan aid packages; all of the measures have been signed into law by president Donald Trump.
The first bill was the Coronavirus Preparedness & Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, while the second was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act 2020. The third and most recent is the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The latter will include direct financial payments for as much as $1,200 for individual taxpayers, and $500 per child for those who qualify.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) were among those fighting for an array of provisions during the legislative process.
The latest bill includes an expansion of unemployment benefits; billions in additional funding for SNAP to ensure all Americans, including seniors and children, receive the food they need; millions for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); and a temporary moratorium of six months for federal student loans.
Meanwhile, Black lawmakers also helped secure a temporary moratorium on eviction filings for all federally backed mortgage loans; grants and loans for minority-owned and small businesses; $1 billion for the Community Services Block Grant and $750 million for Head Start for kids; and $4 billion in homeless assistance grants.
Moreover, there’s $100 million for the Federal Bureau of Prisons to respond to the coronavirus pandemic with critical resources; and $127 billion for health/medical response efforts, including tax credits for manufacturers of ventilators, masks, and other resources, including funding to address mental health needs.
The White House has said the dollars for the COVID-19 pandemic will be “locally executed, state-managed, and federally supported.”
While the mayors interviewed told ESSENCE those monies are welcome, some are concerned that with the federal government making an enormous transfer of wealth and resources, historic racial issues could be reinforced and possibly exacerbated through inequitable policies, investments, and distributions.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor Department recently suspended affirmative action for three months on all federal supply and service and construction contracts.
The mayors said this could impact minority business owners and keep them from fully participating in the economic relief provided by the stimulus bills.
“The money from the federal government goes to the states and then it trickles down to the cities,” said Lovely Warren, mayor of Rochester, New York. The state has experienced a major surge in coronavirus cases. “But what we mayors are advocating for is direct funding at the local level for our cities.”
Local officials around the country have been advised to coordinate requests through their State Emergency Management agencies. However, the Black Mayors’ Association said state agencies are overburdened, and under-resourced amid these unique circumstances.
Black mayors are requesting that direct funding not only go to larger cities but those with 500,000 or fewer citizens. They want to ensure that there is not an unfair threshold for emergency funding that would shut out medium-size and small cities from badly needed relief.
If not, the mayors say the loss of tax revenue and economic distress caused by COVID-19 could substantially impede their ability to deliver basic services for residents: public safety i.e. police, firefighters, plus utilities, waste management services and more.
Meanwhile, there are fears city governments will face layoffs and reduced pension funding due to market conditions.
“The pandemic is a health crisis that has turned into a fiscal crisis,” said Warren, who leads a city of about 210,000 residents. “Right now, we’re still able to pick up the trash and keep the 911 call centers working in my city. But with people not eating out, shopping, and spending, there’s barely any tax revenue coming in. And that’s a major problem.”
While many cities have so-called Rainy Day or contingency funds, the mayors indicated they will likely face budget deficits.
“It’s not gonna be easy,” said Victoria Woodards, mayor of Takoma, Washington—population 213,000. While Takoma hasn’t had a major onset of cases, Washington State has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
“The hard thing about this pandemic is that it’s not like a natural disaster,” she said. “If a tornado comes through or a flood happens you see the visible damage. This is very different.”
Woodards’ administration will soon begin working on her FY 2021 budget and she is worried the city won’t be able to close millions in funding gaps that have a far-reaching impact. “We’ve got a lot of small nonprofits who provide services like food banks. How are we gonna be able to keep funding existing non-profits plus newer ones?”
“We will need federal help,” she said. “But no doubt we will get through this and take care of my city and its people.”
Hardie Davis, mayor of Augusta, Georgia, and president of the association says Black mayors, will rise to the occasion.
“Mayors know the needs of their communities better than anyone,” he said, “and need to be empowered to protect their constituents at this time of unprecedented challenge.”
Meanwhile, there is promising news on the horizon for mayors and their cities. Speaker Pelosi and other Congressional leaders say there may be a fourth stimulus package.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told ESSENCE in a statement: “While House Democrats fought hard for additional resources for states and localities, the CARES Act was a compromise measure negotiated with Congressional Republicans and the Administration. We recognize additional work is necessary to provide states and localities with sufficient resources to address this public health emergency.”
Hoyer vowed, “We will be working to address that with additional legislation and ensure they have the necessary resources to confront this pandemic.”