The last year has brought much-needed new attention to issues of racism across the country and in Kentucky, spurred in large part by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. Through public policy, systemic changes to more fully address racial inequities can occur. As Kentucky crosses the halfway point of the 2021 legislative session, it’s important to take stock of the General Assembly’s efforts and opportunities to advance race equity — the state in which race no longer predicts outcomes.
In Kentucky, because of policy and discriminatory barriers to thriving for Black, Hispanic and other Kentuckians of color, and advantages for white Kentuckians, race currently predicts outcomes such as income, wealth, access to job benefits like paid leave and health care, maternal and infant health, and the likelihood of being incarcerated or a victim of violent crime. These racial disparities exist, even in a state like Kentucky where barriers to thriving have also resulted in high rates of poverty and incarceration, for instance, for white people. While policies to remove barriers would disproportionately benefit Kentuckians of color who face the greatest harms because of them, all Kentuckians will ultimately benefit regardless of their race. These policies would unlock the potential of historically excluded groups to innovate our economy and create more shared prosperity in the commonwealth.
Notable legislation has been filed to examine racial inequity in Kentucky and to bolster legislative awareness and discussion about policy solutions. Senate Bill (SB) 10, sponsored by Sen. David Givens with bipartisan support, would establish a Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity to discuss and build support for policies advancing race equity. SB 23 and SB 155, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Neal, would require impact statements on disparate effects in health and criminal justice proposals. And Rep. Samara Heavrin’s House Bill (HB) 212 would require child and maternal fatality data in Kentucky to be disaggregated by race, among other demographics.
Understanding and discussing racial inequities is critical, but as Rep. Attica Scott has pointed out, legislators can enact powerful legislation this session that’s already been filed to improve outcomes for people of color in Kentucky. Here are 10 examples of important equity-related issues (in no particular order):
Criminal Justice Policy
1 – End mandatory transfer of children to adult courts
SB 36, sponsored by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, would eliminate a provision in Kentucky law mandating that children charged with certain felony offenses be prosecuted as adults, rather than as juveniles. The current law limits the discretion of prosecutors and judges in such cases, which hurts too many Kentucky children while failing to protect communities. Significant research confirms that the transfer of children to adult court actually reduces community safety and results in numerous harms to those children as they face more severe punishments than in the juvenile system as well as the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. According to a recent report, Black youth represent 57% of youth transferred to adult court despite being only 11% of the statewide juvenile population. The inequities are even starker in Jefferson County, where most of the state’s Black youth transferred to adult court are located. While Black youth represent 27% of Jefferson County’s population under the age of 18, they accounted for 93% of the children charged as adults between 2016 and 2018. Kentucky has a long way to go in addressing racially disparate outcomes in juvenile justice, but SB 36 would begin to address the problem from one angle by leading to fewer Black youth being tried as adults.
2 – Ban no-knock raids
HB 21, sponsored by Rep. Attica Scott and known as Breonna’s Law, would ban no-knock warrants in Kentucky — an important first step in addressing police violence through demilitarization. A no-knock warrant authorizes police officers to enter a premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose. No-knock raids are a violent practice with racist roots and outcomes that frequently result in the injury or death of people whose homes are invaded, including many individuals entirely innocent of a crime (as was the case with Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March 2020). Black people and predominantly Black communities are overrepresented in SWAT searches both nationally and in Louisville. In June 2020, a measure to ban no-knock warrants was named to memorialize Breonna Taylor and was unanimously passed by the Louisville Metro Council. Kentucky should build on this momentum and ban the issuance of no-knock warrants statewide, as well as all other types of forced-entry police raids as a step toward demilitarization of local police forces. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ State Bill Tracking Database, seven states have introduced bills related to search warrants since May 2020. In October 2020, Virginia became the third state in the U.S. to implement a statewide ban on no-knock warrants, and the first to do so since the killing of Breonna Taylor.
3 – Reform sentencing
Sentencing reform is necessary to race equity. Mass incarceration and its health and economic harms are disproportionately experienced in communities of color due to overpolicing and other policies that reinforce historical, structural barriers to economic opportunities. One important piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Ed Massey, HB 126, would raise the felony threshold and is well positioned to become law after many years of legislative efforts. This important legislation would increase the threshold at which stealing something of value becomes a felony, reducing the number of people held in our overcrowded county jails and the corresponding costs to individuals, their families and our correctional system. Raising the felony theft threshold from the current $500 to $1,000 would align Kentucky with both the national median and the threshold of neighboring states Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. This policy and other direct, effective means of reducing incarceration will have a positive impact on racial equity.
Another important related proposal is HB 247, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Willner, which would prevent Kentucky colleges and universities from including questions about criminal history in their application materials and admissions processes. Because of the criminal legal system’s many racial inequities, this proposal would remove an educational barrier that has impeded a disproportionate share of Kentucky’s Black population.
Economic Security Policy
4 – Provide earned paid sick leave and parental leave
Earned paid sick leave allows people to stay home from work or get medical care when they are sick without risking employment or income — critical for individuals’ health and economic well-being. Up to 70% of the lowest-paid private-sector workers — among whom Black and Hispanic Kentuckians and women are overrepresented — lack this protection, and Kentucky is among the states with the lowest employee access to this benefit. HB 32 from Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson would enhance racial and gender health and economic equity by requiring Kentucky employers to provide earned paid sick leave. This worker protection is also a best practice for public health: In many low-wage sectors, the risk of spreading infectious diseases like COVID-19 is higher due to public interaction and/or physically close working quarters. Because people of color and women are disproportionately likely to hold these positions and face the associated risks, mandatory paid sick leave would protect a disproportionate share of women and people of color in Kentucky from exposure.
Similarly, paid parental/family leave policies provide parents with much-needed, paid time off work when a new child is born or adopted, delivering many short and long-term health benefits, including reduced rates of infant mortality and postpartum depression and increased rates of breastfeeding. Though federal family/medical leave laws require employers to provide some unpaid family leave, many workers with low wages, who are disproportionately women of color, cannot afford to take time off of work without pay. As with paid sick leave legislation, the mandating of broad access to paid family leave would promote racial and gender equity in the commonwealth. Sponsored by Rep. Jason Nemes with bipartisan support, HB 54 would provide state employees the many health benefits of spending time with new children and prevent them from having to choose between their next paycheck and caring for a new family member. In future legislative sessions, lawmakers should build on momentum behind HB 54 and enact paid family leave not only for state employees, but for workers across all sectors of the state economy.
5 – Raise the minimum wage
As with other labor standards, a higher minimum wage disproportionately benefits Black and Hispanic Kentuckians and women because these demographics are overrepresented in underpaid, undervalued jobs. Sponsored by Sen. Reggie Thomas, SB 41 would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and the tipped minimum wage to $7.25 per hour by July 1, 2026, in annual increments starting this year. Rep. Joni Jenkins’s House Bill 34 is very similar, though it achieves the $15 minimum wage by 2028, and a lower tipped minimum wage ($4.90 per hour) by 2024. According to Census Bureau data, in Kentucky, the median wage in 2019 was $17.89, but for Black Kentucky workers it was $15.04. This means half of Black Kentucky workers earned at or below this new proposed minimum wage and many would see an increase in their income under these proposals, helping to close the disparity in wages for Black Kentuckians. The minimum wage increase of the 1960s (when the minimum wage was at its height in terms of purchasing power) significantly improved racial economic equity and was responsible for a roughly 20% reduction in the wage gap during that time.
Both bills also include language that would allow local governments to set a higher minimum wage. Lexington and Louisville previously enacted higher local minimum wages, but these were struck down by the courts in 2016 and then preempted by the legislature in 2017. Preemption has racist roots and racially disparate outcomes, as it prevents communities where more Black, Hispanic and other people of color live from passing laws to support families’ economic security.
6 – Cap monthly insulin costs at $30
HB 95 and SB 110, sponsored by Rep. Danny Bentley and Sen. Phillip Wheeler, respectively, would cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $30 per month. By improving insulin affordability, the legislation would especially help low-income Kentuckians who would otherwise struggle to purchase needed medication. Due to health inequities caused by structural barriers to well-being, Black Kentuckians face higher rates of both prevalence (14.5%) and mortality (37.9 per 100,000) from diabetes than white Kentuckians (13.3% and 19.7 per 100,000 respectively) according to the Kentucky Minority Health Status Report. And due to economic inequities caused by those same barriers, Black Kentuckians at the median are paid $0.84 for every $1 a white Kentuckian at the median earns, making the costs of prescription drugs a greater burden. HB 95 and SB 110 would be a step toward health equity in the commonwealth by reducing insulin costs for the disproportionate share of Black Kentuckians with diabetes, who also face the racial wage gap.
7 – Eliminate Medicaid co-pays
SB 55, co-sponsored by Sens. Stephen Meredith and Ralph Alvarado, would prohibit Medicaid — either through managed care organizations or directly through the state’s fee-for-service programs — from charging co-pays or any other kind of cost sharing in seeking medical care. This is an important step in removing a known barrier (cost) from medical care, mental health services and prescription medication. Cost is particularly a barrier for Medicaid enrollees who are, by definition, low-wage earners (the income threshold for adult eligibility is 138% of the federal poverty level, or roughly $17,775 for an individual). Because of the race wage gap and lack of employer-provided health care in industries where workers are more likely to be people of color, Black Kentuckians constitute a larger share of the Medicaid-eligible population than of the overall state population (13.2% compared to 8.2%, respectively, based on data from the Census and Cabinet for Health and Family Services). Ending unnecessary and burdensome Medicaid co-pays will help ensure more Black Kentuckians are able to receive care when needed, and is a component of improving race-based health inequities plaguing the commonwealth.
8 – Address racial disparities in maternal, infant and child health outcomes
Being disproportionately underpaid, without job benefits and barred from generational wealth, living in areas with more environmental pollution and experiencing the related toxic stress are just a few consequences of barriers to thriving that undermine health for women of color and their families. Inadequate health care deeply compounds these harms. Policies that address implicit bias and improve health care affordability, access and coverage are an important step in narrowing and eventually eliminating the long-standing racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality and postpartum health outcomes. During the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly, Reps. Attica Scott, Nima Kulkarni, Joni Jenkins and others have introduced a suite of bills that would improve maternal, infant and child health and address racial disparities on many measures. Proposed legislation includes:
- HB 27 would provide patients with information on their rights and health care providers with implicit bias training. It also requires the Kentucky Department of Public Health to track maternal death and morbidity.
- HB 266, HB 286 and HB 291 would require Medicaid to cover the expense of midwives and doulas.
- HB 283 would extend Medicaid coverage of postpartum health issues for up to one year, instead of the current 60-day cap.
- HB 350 would extend Medicaid coverage of breastfeeding equipment and lactation support.
- HB 299 would make pregnancy a qualifying event for health insurance, meaning it would allow uninsured women to obtain coverage and thereby improve access to prenatal care.
- HB 285 would increase access to pregnancy-related services, including midwives and doulas, for women who are incarcerated.
9 – Invest in an equitable recovery
In January, Governor Beshear proposed a budget that would promote equity in the recovery from COVID-19 by prioritizing needs in the ongoing crisis. Racial health and economic disparities that existed before COVID-19 have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and recession, and investments through the state budget can set us on a better path by providing aid and targeting to where it is most needed. As in other policy areas, budget choices that strengthen public services and relief and assistance programs deliver disproportionate benefit to Kentuckians of color because of the systemic barriers to economic security and the purchasing of private goods and services that they face. The Governor’s proposal would use $613 million in one-time monies from federal stimulus to provide relief to families and businesses hurting from the pandemic, including through boosts to unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and needed fixes to problems with that system. Because Black Kentuckians have faced more layoffs and longer unemployed periods than white Kentuckians in the pandemic, strengthening UI will deliver disproportionate relief. For the same reasons, Rep. McKenzie Cantrell’s HB 406 to modernize and strengthen UI in Kentucky is another important equity-advancing bill.
The Governor’s proposal would protect core services like public P-12 education and Medicaid from cuts, and in some cases provide small increases in funding. It protects funding for the Human Rights Commission, which has been cut repeatedly in recent budgets, and for Kentucky State University, a Historically Black College and University at risk under the state’s inequitable performance funding model.
As the legislative conference committee constructs its budget bill in the remainder of session, they must avoid the disparate harms to Kentuckians of color from an austerity budget that deprives communities of vital services and needed relief.
10 – Raise revenue from those most able to pay
HB 356, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Willner, would go a significant way toward cleaning up Kentucky’s tax code of the many tax breaks that benefit wealthy, predominately white Kentuckians — and would raise over $1 billion in needed revenue annually to invest in equitable and prosperous Kentucky communities. Currently, the state’s tax system plays an active role in exacerbating income disparities. Black and Hispanic families who have lower average incomes face higher average effective state and local tax rates than white Kentuckians. In fact, according to analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the top 20% of earners in Kentucky, who are predominately white, pay the lowest effective total state and local tax rate. HB 356 would revoke costly bank and corporate tax breaks that have passed in recent sessions and clean up other special interest tax breaks, reinstate the tax on extremely wealthy estates, phase out the retirement exclusion and itemized deductions for wealthier Kentuckians and return to a graduated income tax that asks more of those most able to pay. Combined, these measures would reduce our tax system’s widening of income disparities and help fuel an equitable recovery and future by funding investments in communities and people.