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Taifa Smith Butler

As we focus our attention toward ensuring an equitable recovery for all Georgians, state leaders must decide: Do we go back to the status quo, or do we build a future where prosperity is in reach for every family?

Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. We’ll likely have a majority of people of color within the next decade. As this state grows more diverse, we must prioritize the needs of Georgians who have often been excluded from opportunity.

To create a brighter future for all Georgians, we must acknowledge our state’s past. Some would prefer we ignore Georgia’s history and the long-lasting legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racially discriminatory policies and practices across housing, employment and finances. And that would be a mistake. Lawmakers must address the inequities and set a course where public policy can be used to solve lingering challenges and help strengthen Georgia’s economy so everyone can thrive.

Historical and current practices have created deep inequities in our state. Today, the median income of Georgia’s white households is about $68,000 compared to $51,000 for Latin households and $45,000 for black households, and median wealth is more than $127,000 for white households while only $17,000 for Latin households and $8,000 for black households. Meanwhile many K-12 school districts with higher proportions of black students also face higher rates of poverty. Black and Hispanic Georgians face disproportionately high uninsured rates, and our state continues to hold one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation.

That’s where the opportunity for Georgia to change the status quo comes in. Our state is receiving $4.7 billion in flexible funding from the American Rescue Plan. While these funds should first be used to eliminate ongoing budget cuts across core areas of government, lawmakers can next provide aid to Georgians most affected by the pandemic and in need of greater support.

Lawmakers can fund solutions that put Georgians first and combat the disparities worsened by COVID-19. They can provide additional funding to support K-12 students living in poverty, known as an Opportunity Weight. Right now, Georgia is one of only eight states that does not account for student poverty in their school funding formulas.

State leaders also can create a direct payment modeled after the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. These payments — similar to federal stimulus checks — could put up to $500 in the pockets of families and benefit up to 1.5 million Georgia children.

They also finally can adopt full Medicaid expansion, which would expand health coverage to hundreds of thousands of Georgians. This would not only provide 90 percent of the funding for our state’s expansion population, but it would bring in additional dollars to help Georgia pay for other priorities.

Supporting students in poverty, helping families afford necessities and ensuring Georgians have access to affordable health care should not be partisan issues. These policies put the needs of people first. Our state consistently touts its ranking as the No. 1 place to do business. When are we going to focus on becoming the No. 1 place to live or raise a family?

These people-first investments are both critical and urgent, but they aren’t only necessary during times of crisis. Our communities were disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 because our state continuously disinvests in our people. To help foster prosperity in every corner of our state, lawmakers should not only use the ARP dollars to fund these investments over the next few years, but also raise revenues to permanently fund prosperity. It’s abundantly clear we cannot return to this status quo. That does not work for all Georgians.

We know the best days are still ahead of us. The calls for an equitable state that puts the needs of people first continue to grow. Lawmakers must recognize the need to confront our state’s past and prioritize a future where all Georgians can thrive.

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Taifa Smith Butler is president and CEO of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

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