Reconciliation talks put some racial equity policies at risk

Education, health care and other provisions could have 'a disproportionate impact on Black and brown families'

Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., were among the six House Democrats who voted against the infrastructure bill.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., were among the six House Democrats who voted against the infrastructure bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 16, 2021 at 1:39pm

Congressional Democrats’ efforts to address racial and economic inequality, a persistent push from the 2020 elections, may hang in the balance as the president’s major social spending package hangs in limbo.

That measure includes tax provisions that could reduce childhood poverty by as much as 40 percent, disproportionately helping families in minority communities. It also would increase spending on minority-serving educational institutions, provide universal pre-K and change policies to encourage growth of minority-owned small businesses.

Adewale Maye, an analyst at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, said provisions in the reconciliation package on education, health care and child care “could have a very large impact on poverty reduction and have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown families.” 

President Joe Biden made addressing such inequities a major plank of his election campaign last year and, now, a primary selling point of the bill. Administration officials argue provisions in the package would target societal ills, such as childhood poverty, lower educational attainment and low business ownership, that predominate in minority communities.

But disagreements among congressional Democrats over the cost and content of the package have stalled its passage, despite hopes to clear it through a budget reconciliation process that requires only a simple majority in the Senate.

The next hurdle for Biden’s social spending plan could come by the end of the week, when the Congressional Budget office said it would finish a full score. Moderate Democrats balked at voting on the bill before the recess without the CBO score.

Addressing inequities

In events during last week's recess and leading up to the vote clearing a separate bipartisan infrastructure package, Democrats touted their push to address racial inequities in infrastructure, broadband access and education. 

At a recent district event organized by Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., Mecklenburg County Commissioner Mark Jerrell called the proposal for universal pre-K and funds to clean up the local environment and diversify the economy “transformational” in addressing racial inequalities in the area.

“We believe that the country that invests today in our families, particularly working families, will pay dividends into the future, so we are very excited,” Jerrell said.

An analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the bill’s proposed expansion of the child tax credit, and making it fully refundable permanently, could reduce child poverty by 40 percent. 

Maye noted the expansion of the Pell grant and extension of universal prekindergarten could have a similar effect for child care and education. He pointed to a Department of Education report showing that 75 percent of students at historically Black colleges and universities relied on Pell grants to pay for tuition, compared with less than 40 percent at other institutions.

The reconciliation bill also would change federal contracting law by establishing a $1 billion startup program for small businesses, geared toward giving minority-owned businesses more access to federal contracting, said the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

The National League of Cities joined the Hispanic Chamber in calling for passage of the package, saying in a statement that “our communities, especially those that have been historically mistreated, don’t have time to wait.”

Intraparty divisions

Those provisions hang by a thread as Democrats, who hold slim margins in both chambers, risk defections that could doom passage of the package.

At a Hispanic Federation event last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., emphasized the help the economic package would provide for Hispanic and Latino families, particularly with child care and through the child tax credit expansion and universal pre-K.

“It is a top priority for me for all the good it will do for Latino Americans and all Americans, and it will be the best thing for New York in a long, long time,” Schumer said.

However, progressives in the party have agitated for the package to do more to address those problems — six of them nearly prevented the Nov. 5 passage of the infrastructure bill. They had wanted to pass that bill in tandem with the “Build Back Better” reconciliation plan. 

All six Democrats who voted against the package represent some of the most diverse districts in the country. For example, the district of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, is 46 percent Hispanic, 22 percent non-Hispanic white and 19 percent Asian, according to 2020 census results. 

Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter last week to defend her "no" vote on infrastructure and explain why she linked it to the $1.75 trillion social spending bill. 

“The cost to replace every lead pipe in the United States is $45-60 billion,” she noted, saying the infrastructure bill “only gives $15b.”

“Without BBB, many communities historically denied clean water will continue to be denied. Build Back Better has lead $ for disadvantaged communities. We must keep pushing for BBB,” she said, later adding, “BBB contains the majority of the presidents agenda. We must keep going and ensure the promises are delivered.”