It’s been a little over a year since the country decided that former U.S. Senators Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would take the reins at the White House. The victory marked a changing of the guard that many anticipated would help level the playing field for Black Americans. In 2020, the ticket’s campaign promises—to establish a federal paid family leave program, expand access to high-quality education, and address environmental justice—were essentially hopes and dreams. Today, the White House is working overtime to deliver on the commitments made on the trail.
Last Monday, the president signed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law, opening up a world of new possibilities for the Black community and the country as a whole. The measure comes at a poignant and pivotal time in our nation’s history. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the consequences of a nationwide shutdown were relatively unknown. Nearly two years later, some of the most adversely affected have been our children—those who lack access to the technology needed to further their education.
“We know that this pandemic really did expose a lot of the failures and fractures in our system, including immense disparities based on race for people of every age,” Harris tells EBONY by phone after the signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “When it comes to our children, we saw that it was Black and Brown children who were more likely to be without access to the Internet, and that is still having a direct impact on their educational progress.”
In the infrastructure package, $65 billion is dedicated to increasing access to broadband. But Harris says it’s about not only expanding on it but also making sure that with accessibility comes affordability. “It’s important to make that distinction because in certain areas—rural areas, for example—the access issue is a big one,” Harris notes. “But in urban areas, there’s access, technically, but folks can’t afford it.”
The vice president acknowledges that the White House has been “very intentional” about the way the plan was written, citing the stories of parents who drove their kids to parking lots outside of McDonald’s and Starbucks at the height of distance learning so their children could use public Wi-Fi to go online to do their homework or complete their studies. It’s why the plan pours $14 billion into making the Internet affordable and includes providing $30-a-month vouchers for the families that qualify.
In addition to closing the educational divide for Black children—which is imperative—the billions spent on broadband access is expected to make a considerable difference for Black adults. According to a Pew Research study conducted at the top of 2021, Black and Hispanic adults in the United States are less likely than white adults to own a computer or have access to high-speed Internet in their homes. These issues make it more challenging for Black and Hispanic adults to find jobs, secure higher paying roles, and have dependable direct lines of communication for informational purposes.
“You know, I strongly believe that when we want to help the children, we have to help the children directly,” says Harris. “And equally important, we have to help the children in the context of the families that are raising them.” For the administration, this means looking at the many ways Black communities encounter hurdles in pursuit of the resources—safe housing, equitable education, quality medical care, fair wages—that are readily available to their white counterparts. Transportation, she says, is an increasingly frustrating obstacle.
“Let’s be clear that we’re looking at the fact that African American workers commute by public transportation at four times the rate of white workers,” Harris points out. “And across the country, you’re seeing an erosion of the public transit system. We are going to put billions of dollars into the public transit system in a way that is going to make commute times shorter, in a way that is going to put more buses on the street, in a way that is going to improve the transit system so that folks don’t have to spend so many of their waking hours just trying to get to work or get home.”
Harris draws a direct line from improved transportation to the edification of Black children, noting that better commute times will allow parents to spend more time with their kids at the dinner table or simply help them with their homework and studies. There is now $90 billion in the infrastructure bill going into our public transit system. But that’s not where the improvements end.
The former U.S. senator from California was enthusiastic when explaining that the trillion-dollar plan would also improve the water systems that have failed Black communities in places like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Flint, Michigan. “We are putting an incredible amount of money into getting rid of lead pipes in America so that our children don’t have to drink toxic water,” Harris says. “I’ve seen plenty of studies that have been conducted on the nature of toxic water and how that impacts children’s ability to learn. So these are some very direct things that are coming out of the infrastructure bill.”
While the signing of the bill remains a cause for celebration, the Biden administration has not lost sight of the big picture. Passing the Build Back Better (BBB) Act will further the efforts laid out in the new law while putting much-needed money in the pockets of Americans. For example, BBB is expected to reduce the costs of childcare and eldercare and enable universal pre-K and paid leave. The bill passed in the House on Friday morning.
“[Build Back Better] is really about seeing people and the many facets of how people live and the challenges they have,” Harris asserts. “We’re saying we see and we understand what’s happening.”