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Pandemic relief funds give us a chance to get it right on racial justice

By Sonia Chang-Díaz, Adam Gomez, Russell Holmes, Segun Idowu, and Rosario Ubiera-Minaya | Oct 21, 2021

For the past 19 months of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve witnessed the effects of structural racism and inequality: COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that have torn disproportionately through Black and Latinx populations, job layoffs that hurt primarily lower-income workers and workers of color, and a vaccine rollout that benefitted wealthier and whiter residents over those who shouldered the most risk and the most loss throughout this pandemic. These past 19 months have been hard on everyone, but they certainly haven’t been hard on everyone equally.

The state has an obligation to make this right — and with $4.8 billion out of $5.3 billion still unspent in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, it also has the opportunity.

These ARPA funds are a once-in-a-generation chance: to strengthen the state’s public health infrastructure and safety net, to close the racial wealth divide, and to put an end to the inequities this pandemic has exacerbated. To make good on that opportunity, the state needs an ARPA spending plan that meets the moment: that recognizes the urgency on the ground, that focuses on structural problems this pandemic has exposed so starkly, and that is accountable to the people it aspires to serve.

That’s why, as community leaders and legislators who represent some of the hardest-hit residents in our state, we created the Racial Equity Scorecard. As the Legislature makes tough and visionary choices about how these funds will be spent, the Racial Equity Scorecard outlines a plan that will put racial justice at the forefront by confronting it in key ways:

It’s urgent. Unemployment benefits for 300,000 residents have expired. Close to 100,000 families, disproportionately families of color, are behind on rent. Members of our communities can’t wait months or even years for this money to hit the streets and make a difference in their lives. We’re calling on the Legislature to commit at least 90 percent of the $4.8 billion in legislation by the end of 2021.

It’s inclusive. We commend the Legislature’s decision to hold a series of hearings where advocates and community members testified about how they hoped to see this money spent. But listening to input and sharing the drafting pen are very different. Legislators of color should be at the table at every stage of the process, with meaningful opportunities to help shape the plan before it goes in front of the Ways and Means Committees for a vote. Community groups focused on equity should be able to give the plan their wholehearted endorsement, not their reluctant acceptance.

It’s accountable. It’s not just about having a voice in forming the plan; it’s also about the plan’s execution. There needs to be a real-time, public-facing database that tracks where the money is being spent. It should include a breakdown of contracts awarded to minority-owned and women-owned businesses, both as a way to track wealth-building opportunities among under-served populations and to require transparency in an area where our state has a seriously <a href="https://www.wgbh.org/news/local-news/2021/10/05/critics-fault-massachusetts-for-counting-nonprofits-in-minority-business-spending-goals"disappointing track record.

It’s targeted. Eighty-five percent of ARPA funds reach the hardest-hit populations. That encompasses environmental justice communities and communities that score in the top half of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index.

It’s innovative. This is our chance to jumpstart our new normal, not return to a broken status quo. This money should fund new programs and expand existing ones aimed at closing disparities, strengthening safety nets, and moving us toward an equitable future. The programs should reduce bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult for people to receive aid, so that help looks more like a pandemic EBT card that comes straight to your door rather than a maze of rental applications where it can take months to get a response.

It’s focused on the structural problems the pandemic has laid bare. To be sure, there are a lot of these problems — requiring far more than $4.8 billion to solve. Amid many competing priorities and worthy endeavors, one thing is clear: This money should be dedicated to fixing problems caused or exacerbated by this pandemic, not to preexisting commitments unrelated to recovery. That means focusing ARPA money not on repairing roads and bridges but on investing in housing stability, public health preparedness, the child care sector, workers’ health and safety, economic opportunities for hard-hit communities, and more.

Over the past year, as this pandemic deepened health and economic disparities and as our country faced a reckoning in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we’ve heard, over and over again, people in power say that they want to tackle deep racial inequalities. Our final ARPA spending package can — and must — be more than that. This is our chance not just to say we’re committed to dismantling systems of racial injustice but to actually do it.

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz; Senator Adam Gomez; Representative Russell Holmes; Segun Idowu, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts; and Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, executive director of Amplify Latinx, are members of the coalition backing the Racial Equity Scorecard.

Photo credit to DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

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