Addressing Disparities New and Old Across New York
By: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
The COVID pandemic has put a spotlight on – and magnified – the inequalities between white communities and communities of color in this country. As a legislator, I see it as my responsibility to address not only those disparities, but also the institutional and systemic racism that created them.
Take, for instance, the reports that, despite Black and brown communities being hit hardest by COVID, many of the first vaccines in New York, and across the US, have gone to white people. We see this disparity of trust and access all too often when it comes to health. That is why I am fighting to create a Health Force that would invest billions of dollars into recruiting, training and employing hundreds of thousands of Americans as local public health workers in their own communities. In the short term, they would build trust and help address the racial disparity in vaccine distribution. And in the long term, they would help diversify and bolster under-resourced health systems in communities of color.
That’s crucial, because we know that the response to COVID is merely a reflection of longstanding racial inequities in our health system – inequities that start at birth. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, regardless of education or socioeconomic factors. The Black Maternal Health Momnibus will take on this crisis from every angle. It will grow and diversify the perinatal workforce to make sure every mom receives quality care from a trusted provider. It will invest in everything from housing, transportation and nutrition to telehealth, mental health, and community-based health organizations. And, it will work to ensure COVID treatments and vaccines are safe for pregnant and lactating people.
Black parents must also have the ability to take time off from work after having a new baby, to care for a sick child, or to recover from COVID without losing their jobs or their paychecks. Women of color are not only more likely to be essential workers who cannot work remotely, but are also more likely to lack paid leave. That lack of options contributed to Black women losing 155,000 jobs in December. We have to do better. My bill, the FAMILY Act, would create a permanent, universal paid leave program that allow all workers to take 12 weeks of paid leave and receive up to 66% of their monthly wages, giving families and our economy a much-needed boost.
Our economic recovery plans must also address the inequities that existed long before the pandemic. It has always been too difficult for minority business owners and entrepreneurs to access capital. Black-owned firms were the most likely to have applied for bank financing, but less than 47% of those applications were fully funded. In New York City, where Black people account for 22% of the population, just 2.1% of businesses are Black-owned. The pandemic led the number of Black small-business owners to drop 41 percent, the steepest decline of any group.
The structure of the Paycheck Protection Program didn’t help. During the first, most competitive phase, 75% of the loans went to businesses in areas where the majority of residents were white. That’s why I prioritized getting money to the Community Development Financial Institutions that facilitate more lending to small businesses in communities of color. I also pushed for the Saving Our Street Act, which would establish a $125 billion fund to aid our smallest businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses.
We can also use infrastructure projects to rebuild our economy and our communities at the same time. But, we must learn from the past and not repeat the harmful approach of Robert Moses. Instead, we need to ensure these projects work with and hire from the local community. My bill, the Build Local, Hire Local Act would do that, creating good jobs where they are most needed.
To truly build this country back better, we must also address the institutional racism that pervades our criminal justice system and our elections. It’s time for the government to recognize that Black lives matter, and to pass meaningful reforms that protect them, including the Justice in Policing Act and the Eric Garner Excessive Force Prevention Act. And we must make sure that every voice can be heard at the ballot box. Too often Black voices are silenced by policies that make them wait longer, travel further, and jump through more hoops to vote. I will continue to fight for the Voter Empowerment Act, a bill I worked on with my friend and civil rights icon, John Lewis, which will make it easier for everyone to register and to vote.
The path to real recovery is the one that recognizes the reality of these compounding crises. I will work every day to make sure that is the path we take.