With uncharacteristic speed, Congress is responding to a historic moment on issues of race in America by crafting legislation to reform police forces—proposals aimed at changing the culture and conditions that have led to the repeated killings of unarmed black Americans at the hands of police.
But increasingly, lawmakers are concerned that Capitol Hill’s response to protesters’ demands for racial justice will be severely limited if it doesn’t include measures to address another powerful undercurrent of the nationwide protests: pervasive economic inequality that’s left black communities behind.
That long standing inequality has been put into an even starker light by the circumstances of George Floyd’s death—his killer, Derek Chauvin, stopped him over an allegedly fake $20 bill—and by the coronavirus outbreak, which has put low-wage workers of color on the front lines of the pandemic, ravaged minority-owned businesses, and sparked massive levels of unemployment in their communities.
Many of the economic relief measures that Congress approved in response to the outbreak—expanded unemployment insurance, a one-time economic stimulus, moratorium on rent payments in public housing—have lapsed or are set to lapse by the end of July.
Failing to address those, said Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), could be a powerful factor that sustains and intensifies protests around the country, as job opportunities stagnate and families face eviction from housing. Beyer, chairman of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, said policymakers have to understand that the protests ignited in an environment where “people are suffering greatly from the recession, the coronavirus, the general systemic sense that things are far from fair in the U.S.”
“If you look at coronavirus, all the strife in our streets right now over police brutality, the impact of the recession,” continued Beyer, “all are connected to the systemic racism that’s expressed in our economy.”
The dual push to address both social and economic racial inequality presents Congress with a historic opportunity to enact sweeping legislative reform. But while Republicans, including Trump himself, seem inclined to tackle problems with policing, the appetite for action on economic measures doesn’t seem widespread at the moment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been slow to embrace even the notion that additional COVID-19 relief is necessary; and he’s been backed by close advisers to the president.
For those concerned about lingering social discord, that’s proved worrisome.
In a June 2 statement before the Senate Banking Committee, on which he is the top Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sought to connect the issues gripping the country: “Our job is to show victims of systemic racism at the hands of their own government that the same government will protect them from this pandemic—that we hear them, that we see them, that we are fighting for them,” said Brown. “And that their lives matter.”
Asked in an interview if a failure to further extend economic relief could impact protests, Brown said he didn’t want to predict anything. “What I will predict is, if we don’t move until July, the economic damage is going to broaden and deepen, and the hole to climb out of will be much harder to ascend,” he told The Daily Beast. “Everything that’s happening now makes it more urgent.”
Leading Democrats, like former presidential candidate and Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro, say all of these things are “inseparable.”
“So much of the frustration that people feel, I think, stems not only from the loss of life we’ve seen… This is a moment where those two frustrations have met,” Castro told The Daily Beast. “There may be more frustration, there may be more people that get out there,” if lawmakers don’t consider broader economic relief. “The question is, how does that turn into policy changes that make a difference for people?”
House Democrats have already approved legislation that they believe provides at least part of the answer. That bill, dubbed the Heroes Act, was conceived as a successor to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and prior COVID-19 relief bills, which provided each American with a one-time $1,200 stimulus check and enacted temporary relief measures like a $600 per-month boost to unemployment benefits, a moratorium on evictions in public housing, expansions in food stamps, and other initiatives designed to help the poorest Americans manage the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on the economy. The $3 trillion Heroes Act includes extensions of unemployment benefits from the end of July to January 2021, a more generous stimulus check for every household, $100 billion in rent assistance and some student loan forgiveness.
But that legislation was sold more as a statement of Democratic priorities on a future round of COVID relief and is dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Some Republicans, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), have pushed for more forceful government intervention to support workers during the pandemic, seeing a clear connection between economic and social strife currently gripping the country.
“I don’t think we can ignore the fact that this civil unrest is happening against the backdrop of 20 percent unemployment,” Hawley said in an interview, three days before the latest unemployment report was released. “You do have people who are peaceably assembling and who are saying that there needs to be some fundamental change. Part of that is, we have got to create more opportunities for meaningful work in our urban centers.”
Some Republicans and White House advisers have pointed to the newest employment figures as proof that Congress’ next steps for COVID-19 relief should be minimal, if taken at all. The government’s report for May indicated that unemployment rates fell to 13.3 percent—an extraordinarily high number, but less than the historically high, near-Great Depression level numbers that many economists had expected. That report, said White House economic adviser Stephen Moore, “takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of any phase four. We don’t need it now.”
But the 2.5 million jobs gained were spread unevenly across the economy. And the unemployment rate among black Americans actually increased over the month, now sitting at 16.8 percent. Experts caution that Congress will need to take action to address persistent unemployment in communities of color due to the economic challenges they face.
Unemployment rates for blacks approaching 17 percent, said Donna Pavetti, an analyst at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, are “nothing to be celebrating about.”
“People are struggling,” she said. “You could have this confluence of high rates of unemployment, things shifted to give people less room to breathe, all happening simultaneously… Many of those discussions that weren’t framed around race before but are about race differences, that may become much more vivid and explicit in conversations going forward.”
That has some lawmakers, like Brown, hopeful that the confluence of a pandemic and racial strife could present an opportunity to address long standing systemic inequalities in the economy.
“This is the great revealer, coronavirus,” said Brown. “The only thing good to come out of the pandemic is that America recognizes this more and maybe, maybe, maybe we will finally have the political will to do something.”