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 and other Black Americans. Widespread, prolonged protests in big cities and small towns alike reflected a powerful and growing movement to advance racial equity — the state in which race no longer predicts outcomes.
In Kentucky, because of discriminatory, policy-based barriers faced by Black and Hispanic Kentuckians and other people of color, race currently predicts outcomes such as income, wealth, incarceration, life expectancy and other health measures. These racial disparities are clear, even as barriers to thriving have also resulted in high rates of poverty, incarceration and other challenges among white Kentuckians.
Because intentional public policy change is essential to promote race equity, it’s important to take stock of the Kentucky General Assembly’s efforts and opportunities midway through the 2021 legislative session.
Senate Bill (SB) 10, House Bill (HB) 212 and other bills have been filed to examine data on racial inequities and inform future legislation. These evaluations could lay the foundation for long-term progress.
Meanwhile, the 2021 General Assembly can, and therefore must, take meaningful actions to more immediately reduce some of Kentucky’s persistent racial inequities.
For example, multiple reforms to the criminal justice system have broad support and are well positioned to become law. SB 36 would eliminate the current mandate that children charged with certain felony offenses be prosecuted as adults. The racial disparities in juvenile justice are stark: Black youth represent 57% of transfers to adult court despite being only 11% of the statewide juvenile population. Another bill, HB 126, would increase the felony theft threshold from the current $500 to $1,000, which would reduce the overcrowding of county jails and the corresponding costs to individuals, families and the correctional system.
These policies and other means of reducing incarceration will help advance racial equity because the harms of mass incarceration are disproportionately experienced in communities of color. The General Assembly should also pass HB 21, known as Breonna’s Law, to ban no-knock warrants statewide — an important first step in addressing police violence that disproportionately affects Black people and neighborhoods.
Black Kentuckians also experience numerous inequities in health outcomes relating to overall life expectancy and specific health risks. For example, Black Kentuckians face higher rates of both prevalence and mortality from diabetes than white Kentuckians. In the General Assembly, HB 95 and SB 110 would cap out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $30 per month, which would help all Kentuckians who would otherwise struggle with insulin costs.
SB 55 would prohibit Medicaid from charging co-pays, an important step to remove cost barriers from medical care, mental health services and prescription medication. Because of a racial wage gap, where Black Kentuckians make 16 cents less for every dollar earned, and a lack of employer-provided health care in industries that heavily employ people of color, Black Kentuckians constitute a larger share of the Medicaid-eligible population (13.2%) than the state population (8.2%).
Other advancements in racial equity could be achieved through currently filed bills to improve job quality in many underpaid, undervalued industries where Black and Hispanic Kentuckians and women are overrepresented. Requiring paid sick leave and parental leave for workers and raising the minimum wage would help close pay and benefit gaps. Raising new revenues to invest in people and communities by ending tax breaks that benefit wealthy, predominantly white Kentuckians would also help reduce the way our tax system widens income disparities. These advancements are less likely to emerge from the 2021 General Assembly compared to the bills detailed above, but they represent pathways that should be followed in future legislative sessions.
In its core responsibility to enact a budget, the General Assembly should promote equity in the recovery from the pandemic’s economic and health crises, experienced at disparate rates by Kentuckians of color, by strengthening public services and financial assistance programs. The Governor’s proposed budget would use $613 million in one-time federal stimulus monies to provide relief to families and businesses hurting from the pandemic while investing in education, health and infrastructure. As the legislative conference committee constructs its budget bill, members must avoid the harms to all Kentuckians, especially Kentuckians of color, from an austerity budget that would deprive communities of vital services and needed relief.
This column ran in the State-Journal on February 24, 2021.