In summary

Here are 5 key proposals using money from the American Rescue Plan Act as an initial investment for racial equity in California.

By Kiran Savage Sangwan, Special to CalMatters

Kiran Savage Sangwan is the executive director of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network, a statewide health advocacy organization focused on addressing racial and ethnic health disparities, ksavage@cpehn.org.

After a long, hard year, hope is on the horizon. The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine allows us to glimpse the welcome possibility of reopening our economy and our schools. 

While we celebrate more Californians being vaccinated every day, Black and Latino communities continue to be significantly under-vaccinated and there is little perceptible improvement over time.  

Just as we cannot yet declare victory over the pandemic, we cannot let up our fight for equity now. COVID-19 has only affirmed that racism is the most pressing public health crisis of our time.  

The pandemic has clearly exposed two California’s – the California where those with access to resources have comfortably sheltered in place and quickly queued up for vaccines, and the other California where Black and Brown communities have, at great personal risk, kept our economy running while being denied basic health and economic opportunity. 

We cannot have an equitable pandemic recovery if we do not take bold steps to address the underlying inequities.  

The federal American Rescue Plan Act, signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, provides California, along with all our county and city governments, with an unprecedented opportunity to make a $42 billion down payment on equity. Every one of these federal dollars – generated by taxpayers, including all Californians – should be allocated by the state government, and every local government, with a racial equity lens.

Here are 5 key proposals that the Legislature and governor should advance, using the American Rescue Plan Act dollars as an initial investment: 

Ensuring universal access to health care: With this investment, universal coverage can be a reality in California. We should fully fund Medi-Cal and Covered California in order to provide health insurance to all Californians, regardless of immigration status or ability to pay. We have the ability, the public support, and the growing political will to move beyond slogans to actually making this a reality. 

Tackling the looming mental health crisis: The trauma and loss wrought by COVID-19 is likely to leave Californians with an incredible mental health toll, particularly in communities of color. Mental health is a right. We should fund mental health infrastructure sufficient to ensure that every Californian has regular access to dignified, culturally appropriate mental health services.  

Building the health care workforce of tomorrow: The health care system of tomorrow will only advance equity if it is community-driven. This means investing in a transformed health care workforce through new educational opportunities for low-income youth of color and Californians facing unemployment to have health care careers. Not only must we diversify our health care workforce, but we must do so by creating economic opportunities for the communities that have been most impacted by the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic.

Bolstering public and community health: Over the last year, communities of color bore the consequences of decades of defunding public health. We must turn the page on this history and protect our communities with a public health infrastructure that is not only able to effectively tackle infectious diseases, but one that builds strong and healthy communities by addressing the social determinants of health and partners with health plans, hospitals, physicians, nurses and other health care providers on focusing on prevention and optimizing community health, not just paying for the costs of preventable diseases. 

Confronting racism: California should formally commit to confronting structural racism by declaring racism to be a public health crisis and investing $500 million in a California Racial Justice Innovation Fund. The fund would serve as a catalyst for statewide change, investing in bold ideas, systemic reforms and community needs that explicitly root out racial injustice throughout our state.  

While the American Rescue Plan provides one-time relief, California can sustain these investments by implementing a more equitable tax structure that requires the richest Californians to pay their fair share and by divesting from the carceral system. 

According to the California Budget and Policy Center, California loses $13.3 billion annually through corporate tax loopholes and wastes more than $20 billion on prisons, jails and policing, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.  

Equity means a fundamental shift in power and resources. Let’s show our commitment to a new tomorrow by making this $42 billion down payment today.   

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Kiran Savage Sangwan has also written about strategies for achieving health equity in Medi-Cal plans and communities of color.

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