BEYOND THE NUMBERS
To Honor Black History Month, Let’s Make Real Progress in Racial Equity
Our success as a nation depends on whether all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, have the opportunity to thrive. As we honor the contributions and accomplishments of Black people this month to our communities and the nation at large, federal policymakers should ensure that more Black people can thrive and live full lives by moving forward measures that take down or lower obstacles in their way. These measures include key pieces of the House-passed Build Back Better bill; a final compromise agreement should include as much of these provisions as possible. Several funding bills for fiscal year 2022 approved by the House Appropriations Committee include investments that are also important to Black people and other people of color.
Listed below are some of the areas in which these measures could make a significant difference:
- Child poverty. The House Build Back Better bill would permanently extend a provision of last year’s American Rescue Plan Act making the full Child Tax Credit available to children in families with low or no earnings in a year. Prior to the Rescue Plan, half of Black children received a partial credit or no credit at all because their families’ incomes were too low. The House bill would also extend, for one year, the Rescue Plan’s increase in the amount of the Child Tax Credit. The full Rescue Plan expansion is projected to reduce the number of children with annual incomes below the poverty line by more than 40 percent and narrow the difference between the poverty rates for Black and white children by 44 percent, compared to what the rates would be otherwise. The first Child Tax Credit priority in an upcoming compromise agreement should be to ensure that low-income children receive the same credit as middle-income children, ending the policy of providing the least help to the children who need it most. Increasing the credit amount is also important, but that increase doesn’t help low-income children unless those children have access to the full credit.
- Childhood hunger. Due in significant part to harsh, long-standing inequities and structural racism, food insecurity is more common for people of color, particularly households with kids. In 2020, more than 1 in 4 households with children headed by a Black adult experienced food insecurity, meaning they lacked consistent access to enough food to support an active, healthy life. The House-passed Build Back Better bill would extend through 2024 a summer grocery benefit, first provided nationwide during the pandemic, for children who typically receive free or reduced-price school meals during the school year. The benefit is modest, just $65 per month for a child, but research demonstrates that this level of investment has a meaningful impact on reducing food insecurity among children when school is out during the summer. The House bill also would also enable more schools with large numbers of low-income students to serve free meals to all students, expanding access and reducing the stigma that some students experience when accessing free or reduced-price school meals.
- Housing. Racism and policies that uphold it have put people of color at greater risk of high rental cost burdens, overcrowding, eviction, and homelessness. In January 2020, before the pandemic, more than half of all families with children experiencing homelessness were Black. The pandemic and economic downturn caused millions of households to fall behind on rent. On average, about 29 percent of Black households with children reported not being caught up on rent between early August and late September of 2021. Despite the proven successes of housing vouchers at reducing homelessness and housing instability, just 1 in 4 eligible families receive any type of federal rental assistance due to funding limitations. The House-passed bill would fund about 300,000 more Housing Choice Vouchers, which bridge the gap between households’ incomes and the cost of housing. We estimate that more than 70 percent of those receiving the new vouchers would be people of color. A compromise bill should include a meaningful investment in rental assistance to make a dent on this large problem.
- Health coverage and access to care. Build Back Better would close the Medicaid coverage gap, providing a pathway to coverage for more than 2 million people with incomes below the poverty line in states that haven’t adopted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, many of which are in the South. Twenty-eight percent of the people in the coverage gap are Black. The House-passed bill would also make marketplace coverage more affordable by extending the Rescue Plan’s improvements in premium tax credits. The Urban Institute estimates that more than 1 in 3 uninsured non-elderly Black people would gain coverage in 2022 — the largest gains of any racial or ethnic group — from permanently improving the premium credits and closing the coverage gap by expanding marketplace subsidies.
- Preschool and child care. The House Build Back Better bill includes important investments in child care and preschool that would reduce racial inequities in access to opportunity in early childhood within participating states. Black children are disproportionately enrolled in lower-quality preschool programs due to housing segregation and income disparities, so they would particularly benefit from the bill’s investments to improve the quality of preschool programs. The House-passed bill would also make child care more affordable for parents with children up through age 5 in participating states and make investments to improve the quality of care, which is critical for promoting healthy child development.
- Higher education. The House Build Back Better would make college more affordable by boosting Pell Grants, which help low- and moderate-income students pay for college. Fifty-eight percent of Black undergraduates received a need-based Pell Grant in 2015-2016. Build Back Better also includes targeted support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions.
Congress is also working to finalize fiscal year 2022 funding levels for a broad swath of agencies and programs, from agriculture and education to medical research and economic development. This is another important opportunity to make investments that can broaden opportunity. The House Appropriations Committee’s bills, for example, include important increases in Title I funding for schools serving a large number or proportion of students from families with low incomes, which can reduce disparities in education funding across lines of income and race. Even after taking current Title I funding into account, Black students receive almost $400 less in education spending per pupil than white students. The combination of improvements in resources for K-12 instruction with early education has an especially powerful impact in removing obstacles to long-term success for all children, particularly poor children, research by Rucker Johnson and Kirabo Jackson has shown.
Congress should prioritize other investments as well, such as child care, Head Start, and rental assistance in the final appropriations bill. Even if a compromise Build Back Better package is enacted that includes investments in child care, preschool, and housing, it won’t fully meet needs in these areas; the appropriations process provides an opportunity to move these areas forward as well.
Black History Month celebrates the many ways in which Black people have helped build this nation and reminds us that policies to help Black families succeed are a win for everyone. The proposals discussed above can help make this a more equitable society by beginning to address some of the structural barriers that have left so many people behind.