As moderate Democrats pressure their party to slash investments in infrastructure that would support children, families, access to health care, and the programs that ensure that working people in this country are supported, many are talking about the importance of “compromise.”
To compromise requires parties on equal footing to each give as much as they get. It is no compromise for well-paid politicians to cut the programs that make the difference between poverty and security, health and hunger for people who are consistently kept out of the political process. Compromise is the wrong word. This is a power play, and it is happening at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Before we can “compromise” we must start from a shared understanding, and good faith. Important work remains to repair the damage from COVID-19 and to unwind the hundreds of years of dehumanization, stolen labor and resources, and criminalization that has impacted the lives of Black, Brown, AAPI, poor, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ people. Democrats proposed $3.5 trillion in social spending to be passed along with a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill. But it’s our human infrastructure that is being sacrificed when we accept massive cuts to social services.
Tuition-free community college, which would go a long way towards addressing the student debt crisis that handcuffs so many people of color after graduation has been scrapped. Also watered down are investments in affordable housing that would also begin to amend the long, shameful history of redlining and gentrification.
The social spending bill was developed without the input of policy makers of color and there is little in this package that addresses the human costs of underinvesting in communities of color over time. That is why it is critical that Speaker Pelosi maintain her current course to protect funding for the care economy, for climate, and the critical paradigm shift we need to keep Black people truly safe.
There is no infrastructure victory without investment in human infrastructure, which includes social programs that support our families, our communities, and our ability to stay safe and to thrive. Absent bold, intentional action, Congress and the Biden Administration run the risk of repeating the same mistakes of the past. Black, Brown, AAPI, poor, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ people were cut out of the benefits of massive historic investments during the final passage of key federal legislation and again during implementation. From the New Deal to the GI bill, there is a fraught history political officials must contend with as they consider any further action to secure an equitable recovery for the long term.
Intended to uphold Jim Crow laws, the GI Bill was structured to exclude the 1.2 million Black veterans who served during WWII, in segregated ranks. As the bill was being drafted, Southern Democrats were worried that these returning veterans would use the public’s empathy to upend the laws that kept segregation and discrimination legal. As they did with the New Deal, they insisted that the program be administered by individual states instead of the federal government. This decentralization of civil rights was at the core of the strategy to prevent Black people from accessing social and economic programs.
The 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps, a program of Roosevelt’s New Deal, sought to address high unemployment after the Great Depression by creating an agency that would hire mainly unemployed young men to build infrastructure that would protect the country’s forests. By 1935, the agency had given in to racist backlash and segregated their work programs. Many legislators defended this segregation. They carved out exceptions (like a federal minimum wage) and undermined the growth of the labor movement by permitting southern states to deny participation to Black workers outright or limit work opportunities for the ones accepted into the program. They resisted any legislation that would enable more Black people to register to vote.
These bills and programs helped white communities build generational wealth and political power. Black communities, who were harmed and scapegoated, have no reason to trust sweeping legislation that promises to create economic justice for our communities. Not then, and not now.
White Americans’ access to federally backed economic programs not only changed their material conditions, but it boosted the country’s overall economy. According to Harvard Business School Professor James Heskett, the GI Bill “had one of the highest rates of return to the economy that the government has ever realized.”
Today, we write bills to ensure that our needs are reflected, and met. To truly ensure racial justice, those in elected power should look to solutions like the BREATHE Act and the THRIVE Act. Both emphasize the impact of systemic racism on Black women— who carried the country through this pandemic and ultimately lost their jobs, childcare support and access to critical paid sick leave. Crafted by people of color and accounting for historic oppression and systemic racism, these bills offer critical approaches to policy and implementation that affect everyday people.
The Biden Administration has already laid the groundwork with the relief package for COVID. But it is a temporary measure when the challenges it amplified existed for generations before the first case. Moreover, the administration stepped backward by allowing funds to be used for policing.
A study by the COVID-19 Policing Project supported an ‘investments in community’ approach, specifically recommending direct support and community-based safety strategies toward a just recovery is more likely to produce lasting public safety, rather than doubling down on policing.
Now is not the time for compromise. Instead, it’s time to hold the line and center the people who have held this economy together through generations. Investing in human infrastructure also ensures an even recovery for all people, especially the 5.5 million women who left the workforce. Despite being among the most racialized and gendered professions in the country, the caregiving economy is predicted to be among the fastest growing by 2030. With the right investment, we can make care jobs good jobs that are well-paid, have benefits and training, create a pathway for citizenship, and hold the line on our right to join a union. History has shown us that partial investment is insufficient. We have seen the impact of racist approaches to federal spending – deep inequity and suffering. We don’t have to accept programs and policies that refuse to acknowledge and address the real problems. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities. We have the roadmap, and it’s time to follow it.
Dr. Amara Enyia is a public policy expert and a policy and research coordinator for Movement for Black Lives.
Maurice Mitchell is a nationally recognized social movement strategist with the Movement for Black Lives, and the National Director of the Working Families Party.