The 117th Congress has unfinished business for Black America.
In 2020, President Biden ran and won on a platform that included advancing the economic mobility of African Americans and closing racial wealth and income gaps; making far-reaching investments in ending health disparities by race; and tackling racial inequity in our education system.
We can make big, bipartisan progress on these issues before the end of Congress, but it’s up to us to act.
First, we can help close both the racial and gender pay gaps by increasing the minimum wage.
Amid a pandemic, inflation, a housing crisis, and economic stress from every angle, the American people can’t survive on $7.25 an hour. It is impossible to pay rent and feed a family when you’re only making $1,250 a month. That’s not far off from the average monthly rent for an apartment in my home of Charlotte, N.C., and it’s well below the poverty line in every state.
A Republican House won’t raise the wage, so we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. We should raise the minimum wage while we still can.
Next, we have a real opportunity to address the Black maternal health crisis in this year’s end-of-year legislative package.
In the United States, Black women die in childbirth at a rate 3 to 4 times greater than non-Hispanic white women. Thousands of women experience “maternal near-misses” due to complications arising from pregnancy, including women like Beyoncé and Serena Williams. This is compounded by our country’s tragically high maternal and infant mortality rates, which are worse than those of almost every other wealthy democracy.
Despite their transformative potential, the Momnibus programs cost less than .05 percent of the federal budget to implement. President Biden has already signed one of our bipartisan Momnibus bills into law, and most of the relevant language was already included in the Build Back Better package that stalled in the Senate. The Momnibus is incredibly popular, with support from 72 percent of registered voters in a recent poll.
As my co-chair and co-founder of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), said: “Every day that goes by without [the Momnibus’] passage is a disservice to millions of mothers and families.”
I agree. Our mamas can’t wait.
Finally, we can tackle historic underfunding and neglect in higher education by passing the IGNITE HBCU, TCU, and MSI Excellence Act.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) produce half of the Black lawyers and Black public-school teachers in the U.S. HBCUs have always been a ladder to the middle class for Black America despite decades of underfunding, sometimes in violation of federal law.
However, HBCUs have a deferred maintenance backlog of $26 billion, hindering their ability to recruit top students and faculty and provide the best possible education to their students. This year, they’ve had to struggle with scores of bomb threats, mass shootings, and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
TheIGNITE Act would create a federal grant program for infrastructure at HBCUs, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) including Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs) and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs). The grants can be used to improve infrastructure for these schools, including maintenance of historic buildings, new technology and classrooms, or improved security for students and staff.
The IGNITE Act is supported by the Congressional Tri-Caucus, composed of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Our legislation is co-sponsored by 200 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and the Senate companion of the bill also has bipartisan support. In fact, the legislation builds on our FUTURE Act legislation, which President Trump signed into law.
Unfortunately, the most recent major funding package for HBCUs and MSIs — a proposed $3 billion — was also part of the stalled Build Back Better bill. This is our last, best chance to pass the IGNITE Act and fulfill our promises to the American people.
These three proposals will help all Americans, but they specifically make good on what the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats have promised to Black America. We have a real chance to get one or more of these bills done before the new Congress.
We have no one to blame but ourselves if we miss this opportunity.
Alma S. Adams, Ph.D., represents North Carolina’s 12th District.
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