President Joe Biden would not be where he is without Black voters. Fittingly, he’s made some pretty weighty promises in his plan for Black America. We’re keeping track of them all in a biweekly series.
It finally happened. Congressional Democrats were able to push through a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Biden signed into law on March 11. Dubbed the American Rescue Plan, the package is being widely celebrated for its $1,400 stimulus payments, but less widely covered are the policy measures weaved into the legislation to aid historically overlooked segments of the Black population. Those measures range from increases in child tax credits to federal funding aimed at decreasing maternal mortality rates among Black women.
Even outside of the president’s coronavirus relief plan, the Biden administration has taken steps to honor the president’s promises to reduce sentencing for minor crimes and put planning—and only planning, unfortunately—in motion to heighten federal protections for voting rights being threatened at an alarming rate throughout the country.
Biden’s promise: Pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act and develop a new process for pre-clearing election changes as part of a plan to “strengthen our democracy” by protecting “every American’s vote.”
Biden’s action: On March 7, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Biden signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to consider ways to expand opportunities to register to vote. On that March day 56 years ago, the late Rep. John Lewis led more than 600 activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to advocate for voting rights protections in 1965, and they were met with brutality from law enforcement and their white supremacist comrades. Now, white Republicans are again trying to peel back the voting rights of the American people. Only, this time instead of billy clubs, they’re using more than 250 legislative bills to intimidate the American people from voting and make it more difficult to do so.
“The legacy of Selma is that while nothing can stop free people from exercising their most sacred power as citizens, there are those who will do anything they can to take that power away,” Biden tweeted on March 7. “As we reflect on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, we must stay focused on the work ahead.”
Although Biden’s executive order comes noticeably short of passing a voting rights act—which is very much the responsibility of Congress anyway—the executive order does lay out a timeline for developing a strategic plan to promote voter participation.
“Within 200 days of the date of this order, the head of each agency shall submit to the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy a strategic plan outlining the ways identified under this review that the agency can promote voter registration and voter participation,” the president said in the order.
Biden met with voting rights advocate and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams as well as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock on a trip to Atlanta on Friday. They are very much so the major players in a push to fight Republicans who have met a triple-loss in presidential and Georgia state Senate races with more than 250 bills throughout the nation to curtail voting rights. White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement The Hill obtained that the president and Georgia leaders discussed the legislation. "The President re-affirmed his commitment to re-authorizing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and his strong belief that every eligible voter should be able to vote and have their vote counted," the press secretary said.
Georgia Republicans have been pushing legislation that would serve the exact opposite goal. Each chamber of the state's majority-Republican legislature passed bills this month that would together shorten the time Georgians have to vote early and vote by mail, eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, restrict voting on weekends, and even criminalize giving voters water or food in some cases. Writer Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker on Sunday, "there will be a cost—and not just a moral one—if Georgia continues its march backward."
Abrams and Georgia Democrats have been working to get federal legislation passed to fight the GOP effort. The For the People Act, which was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, would for example require states to allow automatic voter registration when residents get driver's licenses or other services through the Department of Motor Vehicles. It would also "end congressional gerrymandering, overhaul federal campaign finance laws," according to the policy institute, the Brennen Center for Justice.
“I want to speak to every young person, every, in fact, person who wonders whether their vote counts,” Warnock said in a radio interview with V-103. “If your vote didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be working so hard to stop you from voting. They see your power. The question is do you see it?”
Criminal justice reform
Biden’s promise: Work with Congress to reform sentencing and “end, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity, decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions, and end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.”
Biden’s action: The Biden administration changed the government's stance on Monday and called for a reduced sentence in the Supreme Court case of Tarahrick Terry, a man convicted of crack cocaine possession, Bloomberg News reported. The decision is a reversal from the stance President Donald Trump’s administration took and is scheduled to be argued on April 20. "Incidentally, this case is a great example of how Trump's Justice Department consistently sought to kneecap the First Step Act through maliciously cramped interpretations of its reforms. Good on the Biden administration for actually, you know, implementing the law," writer Mark Joseph Stern tweeted.
Sentencing reform, however, is only one aspect of the president’s promised criminal justice reform plan, which Black activists have been pushing to see for decades. House Democrats Cori Bush and Ayanna Pressley joined a push sparked by the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls for Biden to grant 100 women clemency his first 100 days in office. "When this country incarcerates people, entire families & communities suffer. With the stroke of a pen, @POTUS can grant clemency to these 100 women," Pressley tweeted on Wednesday. Danielle Metz, a Black woman who former President Barack Obama granted clemency to, told NPR she had never had as much as a traffic ticket when she was sentenced to three life sentences for drug conspiracy and money laundering. She was married to an accused drug kingpin, she told NPR. “ So I was just doing time day for day,” Metz said. “The process was really hard. My family didn't know what to do in the beginning. I had exhausted my appeals. Clemency was my only hope."
Although the offenses Metz was not convicted of were far from minor, Black men and women who are linked to minor offenses such as marijuana use seldom get leniency in the courts. “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession,” the ACLU reported last year. The issue was illuminated on the campaign trail when Biden took a noncommital stance regarding federally legalizing recreational marijuana use. He was again criticized last week when his administration asked White House staffers to resign related to their past marijuana use. Former White House aid Keith Boykin tweeted on Friday: "I've smoked weed. Almost everybody I know has tried marijuana. Most of my successful, smart, talented, capable friends and colleagues have smoked marijuana. And almost every young adult I've met has smoked marijuana. It's 2021. Grow up, America."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a series of tweets on the subject on Friday that “the White House had worked with the security service to update the policies to ensure that past marijuana use wouldn’t automatically disqualify staff from serving in the White House.”
“As a result, more people will serve who would not have in the past with the same level of recent drug use,” Psaki said in another tweet. “The bottom line is this: of the hundreds of people hired, only five people who had started working at the White House are no longer employed as a result of this policy.”
Biden’s promise: Pass a COVID-19 recovery plan that makes sure economic relief reaches Black businesses and reserves half of all new funding from the small business loan option dubbed the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses with 50 employees or less. The first installment of the program left out more than 90% of small businesses owned by people of color, the Center for Responsible Lending estimated last May. (Disclosure: Kos Media received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.)
Biden’s action: The bill Biden signed into law delivers in a big way on the promises he made on and off the campaign trail. His plan, a composite of several Democratic legislative aims, “allocates $15 billion in flexible grants to help the smallest, most severely impacted businesses persevere through the pandemic” and “provides $28 billion for a new grant program to support hard-hit small restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.” Biden also said in a Twitter thread that his administration is adding $7.25 billion in funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, and investing $10 billion in successful financing programs for state, local, and tribal small businesses. ”Altogether, the American Rescue Plan will invest over $60 billion in our small businesses to ensure they have the resources necessary to make it through this pandemic,” the president tweeted.
In addition to the aid for small businesses and stimulus relief of up to $1,400 per person, the Biden administration allocated $10 billion to screen students for COVID-19, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Wednesday it will administer. Norris Cochran, acting secretary of Health and Human Services, told Politico “COVID-19 testing is critical to saving lives and restoring economic activity.”
Biden’s promise: Ensure that every person, whether insured or uninsured, will not have to pay a dollar out-of-pocket for visits related to COVID-19 testing, treatment, preventative services, and any eventual vaccine.
Biden’s action: During the first phase of vaccine distribution, federal agencies have increased the number of health centers distributing vaccines from 250 to 950, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Psaki said during a press briefing that the increase is "hugely important" in addressing access to the vaccine and hesitancies about it because these health centers are trusted sources of health care in many communities.
"Before President Biden took office, the U.S. was administering an average of 900,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses a day," the White House tweeted on Sunday. "Last week, we averaged 2.5 million per day.”
Child tax credit
Biden’s promise: Although not housed in his plan for Black America, Biden's campaign promise to expand an existing child tax credit could have exponential effects in Black communities. In the plan last year, he laid out a potential increase in a tax credit for children ages 6 to 17 from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child and promised to credit families with children under 6 years old $3,600, CNBC reported last September.
Biden’s action: Tucked in his coronavirus relief package, the president accomplished exactly what he promised. His child tax credit, which builds upon policy in effect since 1997, promises to thrust 4.1 million children above the poverty line, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Black and Latino children in particular, whom the current credit disproportionately leaves out or leaves behind, would benefit,” the progressive think tank wrote.
New York Times writer Jason DeParle said the credit has "the makings of a policy revolution." "Though framed in technocratic terms as an expansion of an existing tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, akin to children’s allowances that are common in other rich countries," he wrote. Instead of the traditional lump sum payments during tax time, Biden’s credit will be awarded in monthly installments. An analysis of the plan by the nonprofit Urban Institute showed that the stimulus with the changes in tax law could cause the child poverty rate to drop by more than 52% this year.
Rep. Bush tweeted on Tuesday: “The American Rescue Plan will go down in history as the most progressive piece of legislation in decades, & it would not have happened without progressive organizers, who elected progressive candidates, who fought for progressive policies. This is only the beginning of our work.”
Biden’s promises: Increase the federal investment in Medicaid and reduce maternal mortality rates, which are disproportionally high for Black women. One way the president hoped to decrease the number of women dying during childbirth is by implementing California's strategy nationwide. The state formed a collaborative founded at the Stanford University School of Medicine that researches reoccurring causes of maternal death and recommends strategies to reduce them.
Biden’s action: As a part of his stimulus plan, the president started making way on his effort to reduce that disproportionality through addressing inadequacies in healthcare coverage for low-income mothers. While all states already make Medicaid available to pregnant women who qualify, that coverage stops 60 days after childbirth, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. Biden's COVID-19 relief both funds and extends the protection for a full year beginning April 2022, with Medicaid coverage already extended through the public health emergency. The coverage, which would require states to opt in and pay a portion of the $1,500 per person cost, would be available for five years.
“We know, in the long run, it costs us more if we don’t take care of this problem,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, told The New York Times. The senator along with Rep. Robin Kelly and Sen. Dick Durbin drafted similar legislation in 2019 that would have accomplished the Medicaid extension as well as some of the elements Biden seeks to implement federally from California’s strategy. “Illinois has one of the highest maternal death rates for Black mothers, which is very concerning to me,” Duckworth told the Times. “These are also communities that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.”
Black women are more than two times more likely than white women to die giving birth, according to data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year.
Stacey McMorrow, a researcher with the Urban Institute think tank and author of a study on uninsured new mothers, found that 20% of new uninsured mothers turned down care because of concerns about how they would pay for it. “These aren’t people who are uninsured because they don’t think it’s valuable, or don’t have health concerns,” McMorrow told The New York Times. “They are people who have medical needs.” Of Biden’s bill, McMorrow said it’s “an important steppingstone, but it kicks the can down the road a bit.” “Twelve months later, this coverage will still run out,” she added.
Stay tuned for more as we continue tracking how Biden delivers on his promises to Black America.
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