The promise of America is that each of us has an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. In Everyone’s America: State Policies for an Equal Say in Our Democracy and an Equal Chance in Our Economy, we offer an inclusive, race-forward, working-class platform that policymakers, grassroots organizations, and community members can move in their states to help achieve this vision. The progressive economic agenda centers both race and class, and motivates working people of all races to engage in the civic life of their communities and our nation. The inclusive democracy agenda breaks down barriers to meaningful participation and representation, and creates a democracy that is of, by, and for the people—and not just the wealthy special interests. These 2 key objectives support each other: With equal representation in our democracy, we will help ensure that the benefits of our economy are shared fairly; and with a more balanced economy, we will help ensure that Americans across race and class can fully and fairly participate in our democracy.
Taken together, this suite of policies advances progressive values and activates a broad base, including the “New American Demos” of people of color, single women, young people, and working-class Americans of all races. The inclusive, multi-racial populism that these policies embody stands in stark contrast to the phony populism that today divides, distracts, and disempowers working people, and people of color in particular.
With national politics tangled in scandal and stalemate, this work at the state level is more vital than ever. Not only can real progressive policies take shape on the state level, they can take root and blossom into national action in the future.
Each policy section briefly details the problem, summarizes national polling on the issue, and outlines recommended policy solutions. Since each state faces different challenges, opportunities, and legal, economic, political, and geographic conditions, no single solution will suit every state, and each briefing offers a variety of policy options. Each section also includes messaging guidance for talking about the policy with the public, examples of how similar policies have worked in other states or cities or would work according to studies, and links to further resources.
Americans recognize that corporations and the very wealthy—and the politicians who are beholden to them—have manipulated the rules of our economy and our democracy to consolidate their own wealth and power, at the expense of working people and communities. In a 2017 survey, 73 percent of American adults agreed that, “The economic system in the U.S. is rigged in favor of certain groups.”
When an earlier iteration of the same survey asked which groups the economy was rigged to benefit, 86 percent stated it was rigged for corporations and 91 percent asserted it was rigged to favor the rich.
Across partisan lines, a supermajority of Americans (94 percent) agreed that money in politics and wealthy donors are sources of political dysfunction, and that the wealthy have more power over politicians than constituents do.
Politicians backed by an elite donor class have long deployed racism to make wealthy Americans richer and working Americans more divided, and this strategy is alive and well today. In the same survey, 49 percent of white Americans who believe the economy is rigged said the system favors people who receive government assistance, and 35 percent said the economy is rigged in favor of minority groups—which could not be further from the truth.
Remaining silent on racial injustice and the way that coded racist appeals underlie the major policy issues of our day enables those who deliberately divide us, and undercuts our power to win solutions that work for all of us.
Of course, those beholden to the very wealthy deploy more weapons than race to divide and distract Americans. They stoke fear and anxiety about Muslims, LGBTQ people, and women’s efforts to assert equality, fueling a larger culture war that goads working-class Americans to resent one another and fear the political empowerment of fellow working people rather than direct their rage at corporate greed. While this briefing book focuses on race, Demos does not shy away from confronting inequities of gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and other social cleavages that are used to oppress and divide us.
Political, economic, and racial justice are interconnected, and we must pursue them together. To elevate the policy conversation and advance the interests of working people in 2018 and beyond, state-level policymakers, grassroots organizations, and other thought leaders must commit to a race-forward economic and pro-democracy agenda that will allow all of us to thrive.
Economic Justice Policies
Investing in Our Future
Promote Climate Equity
Human beings are a part of the natural world: We all need clean air, water, and land in the communities where we live and raise our children. Yet corporate interests have put our health and environment at risk by continuing to extract, peddle, and burn fossil fuels. Skewed policies and dependence on yesterday’s technologies have long put communities of color directly in the line of impact, even as just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the global fossil fuel emissions that are destroying our communities and our climate. State policymakers should invest in an equitable transition to clean energy, end the extraction of fossil fuels, stop greenhouse gas pollution, and direct responsible recovery and building in the wake of climate events.
Advance Opportunity Through Transit
Mobility is critical to our communities’ ability to thrive. Growing numbers of Americans rely on public transit to get to work, school, health care, and recreation. However, much of our transit infrastructure is old and deteriorating; many communities lack access to reliable and affordable transportation options; and many of our transit systems were not designed to handle such heavy use. State policymakers should invest in public transit to fix, modernize and expand systems so that more Americans have access to quality transportation options. Revenue sources for transit should favor progressive taxes, since low-income households are disproportionately hurt by increases in user fees and fares.
Invest In Infrastructure
Americans rely on roads, bridges, airports and transit to get us where we need to go; sewer and water systems to keep our families healthy; safe and well-maintained schools, libraries, and other public buildings; and energy to power it all. Our economy depends on strong infrastructure. Yet America’s infrastructure is crumbling; our roads are congested, our bridges are deteriorating, our school buildings are dilapidated, and the pipes that carry our drinking water are in a state of disrepair. State policymakers should increase infrastructure spending to create good jobs and boost the economy, with funds targeted to engage and benefit communities of color that have been historically shut out of economic growth due to discrimination and underinvestment.
Creating Better Jobs
Raise Job Standards
Americans work hard, and that should provide enough to sustain our families. Yet too many employers structure jobs in ways that prevent working people from being able to get by. Today, as women and people of color make up a growing share of America’s working class, employers are weakening job standards for all working people. State policymakers should raise the standards for American jobs so that all working people get paid fairly for their efforts and have work schedules that take their basic needs into account. Vital elements include a higher minimum wage, stable scheduling, paid sick time, prevention of wage theft, protections from being improperly classified as an independent contractor, and increasing the number of working people who are guaranteed overtime pay.
Guarantee Fair Employment
We all deserve an equal opportunity to be hired based on our abilities and to work free of discrimination and harassment. However, discriminatory hiring, firing, harassment, promotions, and pay continue to block opportunity for people of color, women, LGBTQ workers, people with disabilities, and other targeted groups. State policymakers should provide additional resources to strengthen enforcement of existing fair employment laws and expand civil rights laws to clarify that discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, personal credit history, pregnancy status or caregiving responsibilities are illegal. Policymakers should also ensure that people with arrest or conviction records have a fair chance to work.
Restore Freedom To Negotiate At Work
Our American tradition guarantees working people the freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. When workers have the freedom to band together in unions and negotiate with their employers, they and their families gain from improved wages and benefits, safer working conditions, and fairer treatment on the job. Yet because unions successfully enable working people to build power, the freedom to come together in unions is under attack by corporate interests aiming to maximize their own wealth and power. State policymakers should restore workers’ freedom to join together in unions by eliminating so-called “right to work” laws, expanding freedom to negotiate to public employees and other workers left out of federal labor law, leveraging state purchasing power, and banning non-compete agreements.
Ensure Paid Time To Care
At some point in our lives, we all need time to care for loved ones or ourselves, whether we are bonding with a new child, caring for an ailing parent, or recovering from a serious personal illness. Yet in 2017, only 13 percent of private sector workers had access to paid family leave through their employer. Without paid time away from work, Americans put their health at risk, face economic hardship, and are unable to care for those who matter most to them in a time of need. State policymakers should set up a system to provide paid benefits to working people who need time away from their jobs to care for a new child, a loved one with a serious health condition, or their own serious health condition.
Provide Preschool For All
Parents want the best start for their children. In fact, our entire society benefits when children enter kindergarten with a strong educational foundation and when parents can go to work knowing their children are participating in the early learning that will enable them to thrive. Yet even as the benefits of preschool grow increasingly clear, policymakers in many states have failed to invest in providing preschool to all kids regardless of family wealth. At the same time, preschool teachers who do the crucial work of educating young children are typically paid such low wages that they struggle to sustain their own families. State policymakers should guarantee universal, voluntary access to high-quality public preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and improve compensation and training for preschool teachers.
Establish Education Equity
Equal opportunity is a cornerstone of the American ideal. To make that a reality, every child deserves a quality public education, with an opportunity to learn, flourish, and become a full citizen of our democracy. This commitment to universal education is enshrined in state constitutions across the country. Yet in practice, the majority of states provide students with dramatically unequal educational resources and fail to adequately fund schools that serve students of color and students from struggling families. Students are increasingly clustered in schools that are isolated by race and class, and racialized disciplinary policies result in students of color being disproportionately suspended or expelled. State policymakers should change funding formulas to ensure adequate and equitable school funding, promote school integration, create community schools that provide enhanced services and engage parents and the broader community, respect and compensate teachers as professionals, and prevent schools from moving students into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses.
Guarantee Debt-free College
In America, we should all have the opportunity to dream big, develop our potential, and realize our greatest aspirations, and that means making our public colleges affordable to all of us. At a time of persistent racial and economic inequality, many Americans envision higher education as a pathway to a better life, regardless of race, gender, or class. But just as more Americans pursue this aspiration, the rising cost of college and the specter of large student loan debt—particularly at public institutions, which have traditionally been the most affordable and accessible—are eroding this pathway to security. State policymakers should increase per-student support for public 2- and 4-year colleges so that the total price of attending college—including tuition, fees, room and board and other living expenses—is no more than what working and middle-class students can reasonably pay with need-based grant aid and a part-time job.
Achieving Justice For Communities
Secure Access To Justice
The courthouse doors should be open to everyone. When we are caught in legal proceedings that could cause us to lose our homes, families, or ability to live in the country, we should have access to an attorney who can stand up for our most basic rights. However, legal representation is only guaranteed in criminal cases, despite the devastating ramifications of many civil cases. In other circumstances, corporations force employees and customers into binding arbitration, denying individuals who are cheated or discriminated against their day in court. State policymakers should increase access to justice in the civil legal system by expanding access to legal aid services, ensuring that people facing deportation have access to an attorney, and enabling Americans to access the courts despite forced arbitration agreements.
Reinvest In Justice
All Americans should feel safe and protected in their communities. But our criminal justice policies promote mass incarceration and over-policing, rather than actual public safety. As a result of harsh sentences, over-criminalization, and discriminatory policing, our criminal justice system is tearing apart families—disproportionately immigrant families and families of color. State policymakers should reject costly over-incarceration and invest in programs that address the root causes of crime, including amending sentencing laws, modifying prison and jail release practices, and improving access to community services that can help reduce recidivism. Policymakers should also act to end the use of private prisons and curtail cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
Every one of us should be treated equally under the law. This idea is so fundamental to our justice system that it is carved above the doors of the Supreme Court. Yet every day, criminal justice policies penalize people for being poor. People who are unable to pay bail, fines, and fees are forced to remain in jail or take on debt for their involvement in the justice system, contributing to a cycle of poverty and tearing families apart. State policymakers should guarantee that people are not held in jail before trial because of an inability to pay, and should reduce and eliminate fines, fees, and other ways our justice system criminalizes poverty.
Sustaining Our Families
Ensure Health Care For All
When a child is injured or a loved one is suffering from a serious illness, no one wants to think about co-pays and deductibles. We want compassionate, effective medical care, delivered quickly and accessibly. Yet ideologically driven politicians continue to threaten recent gains to health care access in the United States. Many Americans still struggle to get the health care they need and to know that they won’t go bankrupt if they get sick. People of color, undocumented people and low-income Americans all suffer disproportionately under our current health coverage scheme. State policymakers should expand Medicaid and take advantage of other options under the Affordable Care Act to extend health care to all residents.
Make Homes Affordable For All
A home is more than a roof over our heads. It’s the opportunity to raise our families in a safe neighborhood with clean air and water, and to live in a place where we can access good jobs, efficient transportation, and high-quality schools. Yet there is no county in the nation where a full-time worker earning the minimum wage can afford to rent a modest two-bedroom home, and even a one-bedroom is out of reach in most of the country. State policymakers should invest in affordable housing including state housing trust funds, encourage localities to bundle federal grants to address the affordable housing crisis, and strengthen and expand homeownership programs.
Achieve Reproductive Justice
Making their own decisions about whether and when to have children is critical to the economic security of women and their families. Having a child is one of life’s most serious commitments, economically and otherwise. An unintended pregnancy can upend financial stability, making it difficult for mothers in particular to pursue education and maintain employment. Equal access to affordable, accessible reproductive health services, including abortion, is critical. State policymakers should guarantee insurance coverage of a full range of contraceptive methods and services as well as coverage for abortion, and should eliminate obstructive restrictions on abortion providers.
Protect And Improve The Safety Net
To live up to America’s deepest values of human dignity and equality, we must protect and expand our social safety net. Families should not go to bed hungry, be out on the streets as they search for a new job, or lay awake at night wondering how they will afford child care. Throughout our history, we have valued public programs that protect basic living standards for our fellow Americans and enable us to get back on our feet when we fall on hard times. Programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment Insurance (UI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) provide much-needed support for households facing economic hardship, stabilize families’ access to necessities and care, and keep millions of Americans out of poverty. State policymakers should expand eligibility and state funding for safety net programs, remove punitive requirements and restrictions on accessing programs, and allow struggling families to save money or own assets while receiving public benefits.
Building Wealth With Equity
Stop Predatory Lending
Fair and affordable access to credit is vital for American consumers and our economy. Yet today, predatory lenders target low-income communities and communities of color with high-interest loans that trap many of the most disadvantaged consumers in debt. Each year, 12 million Americans take out payday loans, spending more than $9 billion on fees. Payday and car title lenders target low-income neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, promoting quick-fix loans with annual interest rates of nearly 400 percent on average. State policymakers should curb predatory installment loans, cap interest rates, limit loan fees, and require lenders to evaluate a borrower’s ability to repay all loans.
Make Taxes Fair
We pay taxes because all of us together can do what any of us alone cannot. But our tax policy is upside down, with low- and middle-income Americans paying a higher proportion of their incomes in taxes than high-income Americans. At a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, when aid for public colleges and universities is being cut, and when federal lawmakers are threatening the safety net, states urgently need to protect and expand their revenues. State policymakers should stabilize state resources in the face of federal tax changes and make income taxes more progressive by raising taxes at the top of the income ladder, collecting estate and inheritance taxes, taxing investment income at the same rate as income from work, and closing corporate tax loopholes.
Establish State Partnership Banks
Investment enables our communities to thrive. Traditionally, banks provided up-front investments in local businesses and public projects. In recent decades, however, federal policymakers de-regulated the financial industry. Traditional banking, which focused on caretaking of deposits and lending to businesses and individuals, was transformed into a high-risk, high-reward wealth machine for a tiny elite. The “financialization” of our economy is crippling long-term innovation and job creation in the real economy, as community banks fail and small businesses cannot access the credit they need. State policymakers should establish a publicly run state partnership bank to support community banks and make loans that address needs in the real economy, offsetting the financial imbalances created by Wall Street.
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Reducing The Influence Of Big Money In Politics
Center Constituents and Small Donors through People-Powered Election Campaigns
We need a government that is of, by, and for the people—not just the wealthy donors. People from all walks of life should be able to run for office and win. When a political donor class that is wealthier, whiter, and more male than the rest of us has the biggest say in who gets elected, the result is a democracy that is not reflective of We the People. State policymakers should pass and fund public financing programs that allow candidates without deep pockets to compete at every stage of the election cycle. Programs should be designed to amplify the voices of everyday people and to advance racial equity.
Rein In Wealthy Donors and Corporations
When ultra-wealthy individuals and profit-seeking corporations can pour millions into state elections, they drown out everyone else and thwart the will of the people. Historically marginalized communities bear the brunt of this imbalance: job quality and standards diminish, while wealth accrues to the top 1 percent; public infrastructure deteriorates, while oil pipelines are built at the expense of the environmental health of Native Americans and other communities of color; and investments in education and social services shrink, while public spending to incarcerate people in private prisons soars. State policymakers should limit campaign contributions and prohibit corporations from contributing; rein in sham vehicles for big-money spending like single-candidate Super PACs; and strengthen disclosure requirements and enforcement. Over the horizon, policymakers should push for a Supreme Court that will respect our freedom to limit the influence of big money in politics or amend the U.S. Constitution to restore power to the people.
Advancing and Expanding the Freedom to Vote
Modernize Voter Registration
Though voter registration is the on-ramp to participating in elections, nearly 1 in 4 eligible voters is not registered. Voters of color and low-income voters are registered at even lower rates, due to a long history and persistent practice of exclusion from our democracy. Outdated voter registration systems that rely on paper forms and early, arbitrary registration deadlines make voter registration much harder than it needs to be. States should harness technological advances to modernize the voter registration process; offer accessible, online voter registration, and use information already on file with state agencies to automatically register eligible individuals to vote and update their voter information; allow voters to register and cast their ballot on the same day, during early voting and on Election Day; and pre-register eligible 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
Make Voting Accessible
In a democracy, our votes are our voice. Yet in many parts of the country, voting times, places, and forms are so restrictive that they impose often insurmountable hurdles to exercising our fundamental freedom to vote. For instance, state laws limiting voting to a single Tuesday, or restricting who can vote absentee (in person or by mail), block eligible voters from casting their ballots. Voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency often face additional hurdles, including polling sites and ballots that are not compliant with laws designed to protect these voters’ freedom to cast a private, independent ballot. Policymakers should create robust voting options both before and on Election Day; ensure that polling hours and locations are accessible to all eligible voters, including working poor people and people who rely on public transit; and guarantee that all polling sites, ballots, and other voting materials are fully accessible for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
End Felony Disenfranchisement
The answer to the question “Who can vote?” tells you who has a voice in a democracy. Today, more than 6.1 million Americans are barred from voting by state laws that disenfranchise individuals convicted of felonies. Like Jim Crow laws, these voter disenfranchisement laws disempower people of color (particularly African Americans) by linking our right to vote to a criminal legal system that is deeply infected by racism. And, while incarcerated individuals are stripped of their voices in our democracy, they are nevertheless counted for the purposes of drawing voting maps—but as part of the districts in which they are confined, and not the districts they call home. States must abolish felony disenfranchisement laws and restore voting rights to people who have been stripped of their right to vote by such laws; require corrections agencies, including parole boards and probation offices, to offer voter registration and voting services; and draw voting maps using data that counts incarcerated people at their home addresses, not where they are confined.
Enhancing Democratic Representation
Make Representation Real
Too often, election rules undermine the power of everyday people to elect officials who will represent their interests. Partisan and race-based gerrymandering, the use of at-large districts that dilute the representation of people of color, and the Electoral College all prevent people across the United States from having an equal say in our democracy, and actively devalue the participation of parts of the electorate. Some states also use laws (sometimes dubbed “emergency manager” laws) to divest locally elected officials of power and appoint an unelected decision-maker in a community to which they are not accountable. States must establish independent redistricting commissions to draw voting maps and stop drawing winner-take-all, at-large districts. States must also ensure that government officials are responsive to the people they represent, by overhauling “emergency manager” and similar laws, and adopting mechanisms like fusion voting that make candidates more responsive and accountable to a broader range of people.
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