Untax Groceries Rally: March 15, 2022

More than 50 Arise members gathered in Montgomery on Tuesday for the Untax Groceries Rally to support efforts to eliminate the state sales tax on groceries. The event focused on two bills that would end the state grocery tax while protecting school funding: SB 43 by Sen. Andrew Jones and a forthcoming bill by Rep. Penni McClammy. Check out some key highlights from the rally.

March 2022 newsletter

On Feb. 15, dozens of well-wishers gathered for an online retirement party for outgoing Arise policy director Jim Carnes. We salute Jim for his 18 years of service at Arise and his lifelong dedication to building a better world. Thank you, Jim!

Grocery tax, health care key Arise focuses this year

By Chris Sanders, communications director

Untax groceries. Expand health coverage. Make the criminal justice system more just. Those are a few of Alabama Arise’s major priorities during the Legislature’s 2022 regular session. And we’re making real progress toward turning those goals into realities.

Untaxing groceries

Ending the state’s regressive sales tax on groceries has been a longtime Arise priority. It was the centerpiece of Alabama Arise Action’s online Legislative Day on Feb. 15, which attracted nearly 200 advocates from across the state. It also will be the focus of a March 15 rally in Montgomery.

Legislative Day attendees heard from two lawmakers working to untax groceries: Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery. Jones’ and McClammy’s bills reflect growing support for untaxing groceries while protecting funding for public schools.

McClammy said the grocery tax is a policy concern that transcends political lines. “It’s important that we stand together united as one and show the citizens that we all care about what’s going on in our homes,” she said.

Jones expressed optimism that lawmakers are nearing a breakthrough on the grocery tax. “This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Montgomery is not Washington, D.C., so we get a lot of bipartisan work done here.”

Nearly 200 advocates from across Alabama attended Arise’s virtual 2022 Legislative Day on Feb. 15. Supporters gathered to learn more about our issue priorities and get updates on where things stand legislatively on them. Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre (top right), and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery (bottom left), joined us for a discussion of their bills to untax groceries.

Expanding health coverage

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a cruel fact: Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians can’t afford the health care they need. Gov. Kay Ivey can remove that financial barrier by expanding Medicaid to cover nearly 300,000 adults with low incomes. Arise and our Cover Alabama campaign are working hard to make that happen.

Public support for Medicaid expansion is strong and growing. More than seven in 10 Alabamians support expansion, according to a statewide Arise poll conducted in January. Expansion would create more than 20,000 jobs and save the state almost $400 million annually, a recent report estimated.

Extending Alabama Medicaid’s postpartum coverage to one year (up from the current 60 days) is another key goal this year. Nearly 70% of Alabama’s maternal deaths in 2016 were preventable, one study found. That’s why Arise is working hard to ensure legislators fund this life-saving coverage extension in the General Fund budget.

Advancing justice

Numerous reforms of Alabama’s criminal justice system are moving in the Legislature this year. Arise supports two bills – HB 200 by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, and SB 117 by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery – to end driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees. Arise also backs HB 57 by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 215 by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, which would increase transparency in parole decisions.

Together, we can make a difference. Subscribe to our email list for timely alerts on these bills and others. And visit the Bills of Interest page to track legislation throughout the year.

Join us for the Untax Groceries Rally on March 15!

By Matt Okarmus, communications associate

Join Arise in Montgomery to tell lawmakers that now is the time to untax groceries! We can’t miss this opportunity to help families make ends meet.

The Untax Groceries Rally will be from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15. We will gather outside the State House steps. In the case of inclement weather, we have a backup plan for those who feel safe to gather inside.

Visit untaxgroceries.org today to register for the event. Please note that we will observe COVID-19 safety precautions should we gather indoors. Masks will be required for rally participation.

We see you, Alabama, and we’re with you

By Robyn Hyden, executive director

As I think about each of you receiving and reading these updates, in the midst of a hectic and uncertain time, I’m amazed by the strength and resilience of the people like you who make up Arise’s membership and our community.

The single parent who has been holding it together during COVID-19 child care closures and home schooling, all while trying to keep their family safe.

The college student who isn’t sure what the future holds but just wants to make the world a better place.

The full-time essential worker who goes home and works a second shift as a community organizer, caregiver or volunteer, keeping the threads of society woven together.

The person living with disability or mental illness, struggling to find dignity, care and inclusion.

I see you. Alabamians. United in our belief that our state can be better. We’ll make it happen together.

Untaxing groceries is the right path for Alabama

By Carol Gundlach, senior policy analyst

Alabama’s sales tax on groceries is a cruel tax on survival, particularly in times of economic insecurity. It increases hunger rates and drives struggling Alabamians deeper into poverty.

Three bills in the 2022 regular session – SB 43 by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre; HB 173 by Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka; and a forthcoming bill by Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery – would end the state grocery tax while protecting funding for public schools.

Why and how to end the state grocery tax in Alabama

Alabama lawmakers have a real opportunity this year to untax groceries responsibly. Here’s why it needs to happen this year – and how the state can do it:

  • Alabama is one of only three states with no tax break on groceries.
  • The state grocery tax is 4%, equal to two weeks’ worth of groceries each year.
  • Alabama can untax groceries and protect education funding by limiting its state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). The FIT deduction is a skewed tax loophole that overwhelmingly benefits rich households.

All three bills would end the state grocery tax and protect education funding by capping the FIT deduction for individuals. McClammy’s bill also would remove the state sales tax on over-the-counter medicines. All of the bills would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment. The graph below shows how millions of Alabamians would benefit.

Under SB 43 and HB 173, the FIT deduction cap for Alabamians who file as single, head of household or married filing separately would be $4,000 annually. For married couples filing jointly, the limit would be $8,000 a year. Under McClammy’s bill, those annual caps would be $3,500 and $7,000, respectively.

Both sales tax revenue and individual income tax revenue go to the Education Trust Fund. By capping the FIT deduction, these bills would allow Alabama to untax groceries without cutting school funding. This plan would be a significant tax cut for nearly all Alabamians, and the largest benefit would go to people with low and middle incomes who need it most. The Legislature should pass this proposal this year and send it to voters for final approval.

Bottom line

Untaxing groceries quickly and responsibly would boost economic and food security for all Alabamians. By ending the state grocery tax and capping the FIT loophole, lawmakers could protect funding for public schools and make life better for families across our state.

You are the strong force behind Arise’s advocacy

By McKenzie Burton, development associate

Your support holds lawmakers accountable during this legislative session. Will you donate to Alabama Arise today?

Right now in Montgomery, elected officials from across Alabama are proposing laws that would infringe on our constitutional right to protest, limit our children’s access to a quality, well-rounded education and increase barriers to receiving unemployment insurance benefits, even as the pandemic rages on.

There is so much at stake. But our members are the strong force behind our sustained advocacy at the State House – and we are already seeing progress. Lawmakers are willing to hear our concerns, and we need your help to ensure they listen. Your donation will strengthen our calls to stop this harmful legislation and pass laws that ensure all Alabamians have the opportunity to live happy and productive lives.

Will you join or renew your Arise membership today to demand our elected officials promote fair policies to alleviate poverty?

Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our children and neighbors. You can donate online at al-arise.local/donate, or send a check to P.O. Box 1188, Montgomery, AL 36101.

Welcome, Rebecca!

Photo of Rebecca HowardRebecca Howard joined Arise as our new policy and advocacy director in January. She is an Alabama native who grew up in Alexander City. She earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Alabama and an M.A. in European public policy from King’s College London. Before joining Arise, Rebecca worked for former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, serving as his legislative policy adviser on education and agriculture policy, among other issues. She most recently worked as a federal policy adviser at the Learning Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., where she worked on teacher shortages, early childhood education and school discipline issues.

Six ways Alabama should use ARPA funds to build a better, more inclusive future

The Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session, which began Tuesday, will be unusual in one important way. For the first time in many years, Alabama has more than enough revenue to maintain its bare-bones public services. That means instead of scrambling to avoid cuts, the legislative focus can be on strengthening investments in our state’s future.

Both the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget and the General Fund (GF) budget, which funds non-education programs, have seen tax revenues rise more than 10% in the last year. ETF revenues actually increased 16% in 2021. In addition, Alabama has about $1.6 billion of federal relief funds remaining under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). President Joe Biden signed ARPA into law in March 2021.

Alabama lawmakers already allocated $480 million of the state’s ARPA money last year. Of that amount, $400 million went toward prison construction and $80 million went to hospitals and nursing homes.

Budget growth faces sustainability challenges

State budget officials have steadily cautioned lawmakers to consider the one-time nature of both relief money and the bump in tax revenues. Recent revenue growth almost certainly will not be sustained in future years, budget officials warn. And one-time ARPA funds are by definition only temporary.

Alabama’s budget officials have strongly recommended that both ARPA funds and increased state revenues be invested in programs and services that won’t require regular, recurring revenue but that still meet critical needs for the people of the state. Alabama Arise questions whether the new revenue is as unsustainable as budget officials predict. But Arise agrees that this money needs to fund big ideas that will benefit the state for years to come.

Areas for investment

If spent wisely, ARPA funds could create vital long-term improvements for Alabamians. Alabama Arise has numerous specific suggestions for what those big ideas, and investments, could be.

Serve underserved communities

ARPA investments should focus on the most underserved areas and most underserved Alabamians. Communities of color and communities with low incomes, particularly in the Black Belt, have long-festering unmet infrastructure needs. The lack of wastewater treatment, accessible broadband internet, affordable housing and public transportation has held these communities back for decades.

In deciding where to spend new one-time dollars, the most historically neglected parts of Alabama should come first. An urgent public health need in many rural Black Belt counties is for sewer and other water treatment systems. These should be a top priority.

Modernize state technology

A major lesson from the COVID-19 recession was that Alabama’s technology infrastructure is totally inadequate for remote access to services. Suddenly unemployed people desperately tried to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, food assistance, COVID-19 tests and other services on overwhelmed state computer and telephone systems. People who had never before applied for public assistance couldn’t find one-stop sources of information about services for which they might be eligible. And when new federal programs were created, they were hard to implement. That’s because Alabama’s computer systems didn’t talk to each other and couldn’t share information needed to help people get assistance.

Modernizing the state’s computer systems would be a great investment to increase efficiency and prepare us for the next crisis. This would allow for integrated eligibility and data sharing systems across state agencies. And it would be an opportunity to modernize and upgrade the state’s UI application and payment process.

Expand Medicaid and strengthen public health

Alabama has failed for decades to invest adequately in our health care infrastructure, including Medicaid. The devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the consequences of that failure apparent to everyone in the state. We need to invest now in a health care infrastructure that will improve the delivery of health services to underserved individuals and communities.

Medicaid expansion to cover adults with low incomes is an essential step to strengthen Alabama’s health care system. Other investments should include more funding for mobile health services and telehealth services. Alabama also should provide additional resources for our local and state public health departments.

Reduce hunger and promote healthier communities

Hunger was already a large and perpetual problem across Alabama even before the pandemic. But the COVID-19 recession and its aftermath exacerbated this problem by fueling a rapid, major increase in food insecurity. Sudden income loss, rising prices and occasional shortages have made it much more difficult for many people to feed their children and families.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and various child nutrition programs are essential standing resources to fight hunger in Alabama. But the state can and should do more to support our food infrastructure. Alabama should provide healthy food financing grants to expand community groceries, farmers markets and mobile markets. This would improve access to healthy foods in communities without ready access to fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

Invest in affordable housing

The COVID-19 recession has caused a wave of evictions and foreclosures across Alabama. This has occurred as the cost of housing has been driven up amid supply chain issues and fewer available workers.

Alabama could help address its housing shortage and resulting homelessness by providing $25 million for the state Housing Trust Fund. This investment would create and support jobs across the state. And it would reduce Alabama’s shortfall of more than 73,000 affordable homes for people with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Fund public transportation

Alabama’s elected leaders, including Gov. Kay Ivey in her State of the State address, have celebrated the state’s low unemployment rate. But they also are bemoaning our state’s associated low rate of labor force participation. For more Alabamians to return to work during and after the pandemic, the state must ensure they have essential work supports. Not the least of these is transportation to and from a job or school.

Lawmakers can help people reenter the job market by investing $20 million in ARPA funds and $10 million in GF dollars in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. These dollars would go a long way toward ensuring that people, especially those in rural areas, can get to a job and to job training. They also would help Alabama match other federal transportation dollars that can benefit the entire state.

Alabama Arise keeps listening. Here’s what we heard in 2021!

Listening is a core value of Alabama Arise. We deeply value the input we get from our members, our allies and most importantly, those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear to help guide our issue work and our strategies.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continued to challenge us to be creative in finding ways to listen. We did another series of three statewide online Town Hall Tuesdays. This year, we also held 12 individual group listening sessions for a total of 15 listening sessions in all.

What we heard this summer

The town halls happened every two weeks, starting June 15 and ending July 13. The individual meetings took place throughout the summer. Here is some of what we heard in those town halls and in the individual group sessions:

Health care, voting, criminal justice
    • In addition to strong support for Medicaid expansion, we heard several people express the need to address hospital costs, the lack of adequate equitable access to health services and significant concern for prescription drug prices (for seniors in particular). Many people highlighted the need for mental health reforms, and several pointed out the mental health connection to issues of homelessness.
    • We heard concerns about ongoing, intentional barriers to voting. Many raised the need to improve voter access by making it easier, not more difficult, for people to vote. They said we need reforms like automatic voter registration, no-excuse and simplified absentee voting, a better process for restoring voting rights of people who were formerly incarcerated, an Election Day holiday and curbside voting. Issues about term limits for legislators and rank choice voting also were raised. While related to voting, but distinct, redistricting was also a concern.
    • People voiced passionate support for many criminal justice reforms. Several highlighted a desire to abolish the Habitual Felony Offender Act and the death penalty. They also raised their voices for reforms around juvenile justice, gun violence, community sentencing options and programs to build social and job skills of people who were formerly incarcerated. There was much discussion about the need for prison reform beyond just building new prisons. Some participants also mentioned police reforms, specifically people advocating for public access to police body cam footage.
Housing, education, child care, transportation, language barriers
  • We heard much discussion about the need for quality affordable housing, living wages and adequate funding of public education, including early childhood education and child care. Many also emphasized the connections between most of the issues of concern. Deficits in one area lead to insufficiency in many others.
  • We also heard concern about the need to improve public transportation in the state. Many were interested in environmentally friendly public transportation solutions and securing a funding source for the Public Transportation Trust Fund created a few years ago.
  • Among our Spanish-speaking members, many noted concerns with access to health care. These included eligibility concerns and disparities with information shared regarding documents and verification needed to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. They also requested a statewide Spanish-language hotline for addressing day-to-day inquiries surrounding public service benefits.

Notes from each town hall

For details about what we heard in the town hall series, click here to read breakout session notes from each of the 2021 Town Hall Tuesday events. Those sessions were as follows:

June 15 ‒ A better Alabama for all: Participants discussed the question: If you could wave a magic wand and fix one issue that addresses poverty in Alabama, what would that issue be?

June 29 ‒ Health care for all: Participants discussed ways to close the health coverage gap by expanding Medicaid in Alabama.

July 13 ‒ Justice for all: Participants discussed their priorities for improving access to voting and reforming our criminal justice system.

Stay in touch with Arise

We didn’t stop listening because the town halls ended. We want to hear from you, and we encourage you to contact the Arise organizer in your area:

We hope to see you at Arise’s online annual meeting Sept. 25!

The State of Working Alabama 2021: What policy barriers should Alabama remove on this Labor Day?

State of Working Alabama logo

It’s Labor Day weekend. The days are ever so slightly cooler. Football season has started. And Alabama’s economy is officially “open for business.” So why are so many jobs still going unfilled in our state? Why are employers looking for workers and not finding them?

A look at some very interesting data can provide a few answers.

Unemployment vs labor force

Alabama’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, a very impressive 3.2% in July.  But another number doesn’t get as much attention as the unemployment rate: the labor force participation rate. Labor force participation is the number of people who are either working or looking for work divided by the total number of working-age, non-institutionalized people in the state.

Alabama’s labor force participation rate is one of the nation’s lowest. That means many people here are neither working nor looking for work. And that low number may tell us about why a lot of available jobs are not being filled.

In 2008, Alabama’s labor force participation rate was 60.6%. That means 60.6% of potential workers were either employed or looking for employment. By July 2021, our labor force participation rate had declined to 48th nationally at 56.7%. Alabama is also 44th nationally in the share of our adult population who are employed ‒ only slightly under 55%.

Barriers to work

We all know how hard-working the people of Alabama are. We pride ourselves on our work ethic, independence and resilience. But many Alabamians face significant barriers to employment that the pandemic has exacerbated. And those structural barriers have left many jobs unfilled while potential employees are unable to work.

One important explanation revolves around child care. In the recent study, “Where Are They Now? Workers with Young Children during COVID-19,” M. Melinda Pitts of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that the workforce exits of women with children under age 13 accounted for much of the decline in employment. And she attributed much of this decline to the unavailability of quality child care during the pandemic and continued unwillingness to use child care services with the virus still raging. Even with schools and child care centers reopening, Pitts concluded, the continued risk of COVID-19, low vaccination rates and uncertainty about school closures would continue to depress employment rates among women with young children.

Pandemic’s effects

Every couple of weeks during the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has conducted a survey in every state called the Household Pulse Survey. This survey asks a sample of people about how the pandemic has affected their lives, from food security to employment and income. The most recent results from Alabama, for the weeks of Aug. 4-16, provide meaningful insight into why Alabamians may not be taking advantage of the supposedly booming job market. (Arise calculated the following percentages based on survey results.)

Alabama findings

  • Despite the low unemployment rate, many Alabamians, especially women, are not yet employed. Among Alabama women who responded to the survey, 47% were not employed in the seven days preceding the survey, compared to slightly more than 37% of men who were not working.
  • When asked why they were not working, nearly 12% of Alabamians who are not retired and do not have a disability said they were caring for children not in school or day care. Another 5% said they were caring for an older adult.
  • About 5% of Alabama respondents who are not retired and don’t have a disability said they weren’t working because they were afraid of getting COVID-19.
  • More than 11% of Alabamians who are not retired and don’t have a disability said they had lost their job because of the pandemic.
  • About 4% of Alabama respondents who are not retired and don’t have a disability said they weren’t working because they didn’t have transportation to work.
  • The Household Pulse Survey doesn’t break out non-employment rates for men and women by race. But it does show non-employment rates are higher in general for Black people (nearly 49%) and Hispanic/Latinx people (46%) than for white people (40%). Whether because of COVID-19’s impacts or employment barriers or both, people of color are disproportionately affected. This is consistent with research by the Economic Policy Institute which found that Black Alabamians had a 2021 unemployment rate 40% higher than did White Alabamians.

Alabama businesses are desperately looking for workers, and Alabamians want to return to work. But for this to happen, our leadership needs to support workers instead of blaming essential income supports or the workers themselves for vacant jobs. What should elected officials do?

Recommendations:

Wages

Many of the jobs that remain unfilled are in the service sector. These are the public-facing jobs filled by people we hailed as “essential workers” last year. People essential to our recovery from the pandemic and its recession need a living wage. They also need employment supports like health insurance, paid time off and protections from potential coronavirus infection so they can return to work and still take care of their children and families.

Child care

Congress has appropriated significant funds to support child care centers and the parents who need them. And the Department of Human Resources has done a good job of targeting money where it most needs to go. But the number of respondents listing child care or senior care as the reason they are not able to work indicates even more needs to be done. Alabama should redouble its efforts to ensure safe, affordable child care and senior care are available when people need to work, including evenings and weekends.

Public transportation

Alabama lacks public transportation in all but our biggest cities. Even there, transit is limited and often doesn’t get people to the jobs available to them. If Congress approves new infrastructure funds, Alabama should invest heavily in public transportation in both urban and rural counties. These investments would help residents get to work, school, the doctor’s office and other essential locations.

Unemployment insurance benefits

More than 11% of Alabama Household Pulse respondents say they have lost jobs due to the pandemic. That may result from their employer laying them off, going out of business or closing temporarily. People unemployed because of the pandemic continue to need unemployment income (UI) benefits. Alabama’s unemployment compensation system unfortunately has failed to respond adequately either during the recession’s height or our slow recovery. The decision to reduce UI benefits in an effort to force workers back into jobs has only increased suffering without filling the vacant jobs. Alabama needs to invest in a robust unemployment compensation infrastructure. The state also needs to bolster benefits for laid-off workers still suffering the pandemic’s effects.

Health care

Nearly 9% of all the people who responded to the Household Pulse Survey in early August said they were not working because of disability or health problems. Adequate, accessible and affordable health care services can help people address health problems that make work difficult or impossible. Alabama must expand Medicaid to provide these health services if we want to jump-start our economy fully.

Public transparency

The Alabama Department of Labor should return to its former practice of releasing unemployment data via news releases. Months after cutting off the $300 federal supplement, UI claims remain at 297% of pre-pandemic claim numbers. This data shows that, contrary to the false narrative pushed by some officials, pandemic unemployment has never been a result of the increased benefits available through federal assistance. The state should return to publicly acknowledging the data that lays out recent policy mistakes and the number of Alabamians harmed by anti-worker decisions.

COVID-19 concerns

Finally, 5% of Household Pulse respondents who are not retired and do not have a disability said they had not reentered the workforce because of very realistic fears of COVID-19. Alabama and the nation need to ensure our investments in public health interventions and COVID-19 mitigation are science-based and effective. That includes efforts to address vaccine hesitancy and misinformation in Alabama.

Good news for Alabama families: The expanded Child Tax Credit is here!

Monthly payments from the newly enhanced federal Child Tax Credit begin today, marking a historic breakthrough in fighting child poverty. The payments are part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which will help reduce child poverty in the United States by more than 40%.

Child Tax Credit payments are coming to help! $300 per month for kids under 6. $250 per month for kids 6-17.

How does the expanded credit work?

ARPA boosted the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child. It also increased the maximum for children under age 6 to $3,600 per child. And ARPA made the credit fully refundable. This means families will receive the full value of the tax credit even if they have little or no income.

About 94% of Alabama’s children ‒ more than 1 million kids across the state ‒ will benefit from improvements to the credit. By default, most households will receive half of the money in the form of monthly payments from July through December. Those payments will be up to $250 per child, or up to $300 per child under age 6.

Families will receive the other half of the money in a lump sum after filing 2021 income taxes next year. If households choose to opt out of monthly payments, they can receive a single lump-sum payment after filing 2021 taxes.

The expanded credit is a great start to boost economic security for Alabama families, but the improvements are only temporary. The expansion is due to expire next year unless Congress agrees to renew it. That’s why lawmakers urgently need to expand the credit permanently in the next federal COVID-19 relief plan.

What do you need to do to sign up for the expanded credit?

  • Most families are already signed up for Child Tax Credit payments. If you’ve filed tax returns for 2019 or 2020, or if you signed up with the Non-Filer tool last year to receive a stimulus check from the Internal Revenue Service, you will get the monthly Child Tax Credit payments automatically. You do not need to sign up or take any further action.
  • If you aren’t already signed up, you still can do so by clicking here. Even better, if you haven’t yet received any stimulus payments for which you are eligible, you can get those by signing up as well. Note: These payments do not count as income. Signing up won’t affect your eligibility for other federal benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or WIC.
  • To opt out of monthly payments and get your refund as a lump sum after filing 2021 taxes, click here.

Who is eligible for the expanded credit?

ARPA increased the maximum Child Tax Credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child for most kids. The maximum credit increased from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6. The credit also now covers 17-year-olds.

All families will get the full credit if they make up to $150,000 a year for a couple or $112,500 a year for a family with a single head of household. Couples who make up to $440,000 a year or heads of household who make up to $240,000 are eligible for partial credits.

How can you help spread the word?

Make sure your family, friends and neighbors know about the expanded Child Tax Credit! You can send them this helpful two-minute video, courtesy of the Economic Security Project and the Groundwork Collaborative.

You also can share this flyer, courtesy of the Coalition on Human Needs, with people who may not have filed a federal income tax return recently because they did not make enough to owe income taxes.

42 Alabama groups urge Ivey to drive transformative change with federal COVID-19 relief funds

To strengthen the common good: Six principles for allocating Alabama's American Rescue Plan Act funding

Alabama should build a more equitable and inclusive future by using federal COVID-19 relief money for transformational investments in public health and economic opportunity, according to a letter that 42 churches and organizations across the state sent to Gov. Kay Ivey this week. Alabama Arise is among the groups that co-signed the letter.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will provide Alabama $2.3 billion of federal assistance for education and other vital services. Local governments across the state will receive another $1.7 billion.

Affordable housing, education, nutrition and public transportation are a few key areas of need identified in the letter. The letter urges Alabama to use ARPA funds to expand Medicaid, increase broadband internet access in underserved areas and increase funding for child care, early childhood education and mental health care, among other investments.

“New funding at this scale can be transformative for our state, but only if we take a transformative approach to how we spend it,” the letter says. “For too long, Alabama’s leaders … have settled for poor outcomes in health, education, community development and other measures of shared prosperity, because they thought we couldn’t tackle such deep problems. The pandemic is challenging us to reclaim – and redefine – the common good. ARPA funding gives us a rare opportunity to meet the challenge, if we’re willing.”

The full letter, “To Strengthen the Common Good: Six Principles for Allocating Alabama’s ARPA Funding,” is available here.

Principles for effective, transparent use of ARPA money

COVID-19 and its associated recession exacerbated preexisting racial, gender and regional disparities that prevent Alabama from reaching its full potential. Enduring recovery will require breaking away from a mindset of scarce resources and limited opportunities, the letter says.

The letter encourages state leaders to allocate ARPA funds using these six principles as a framework:

  1. Engage local communities at every step.
  2. Aim for equity in outcomes.
  3. Maximize well-being by addressing health in all policies.
  4. Invest in existing assets and capacities to help funds work faster, go further and avoid duplication.
  5. Think big and create a 21st-century infrastructure for the common good.
  6. Build public trust and engagement by following the highest standards of documentation, transparency and accessibility of information about funding awards and expenditures.

Investments to increase equity, expand economic opportunity in Alabama

ARPA funds offer the state an opportunity to lift communities toward better health and broadly shared prosperity. They also can help Alabama address chronic challenges in education, health care, housing and other quality-of-life measures. Among the letter’s key recommendations for allocation of ARPA funds:

  • Expand Medicaid to save lives and ensure health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes.
  • Invest in mobile mental health crisis services and expand mental health crisis centers and school-based mental health services.
  • Increase funding for in-home early childhood education and in-home services for older adults and people with disabilities.
  • Provide funding for the state’s Housing Trust Fund and Public Transportation Trust Fund.
  • Promote equity in high-speed internet access by targeting earmarked broadband funding to help providers expand into underserved areas.
  • Invest in workforce development by creating subsidized apprenticeships, two-year scholarship programs and subsidized certificate programs for workers with low incomes.
  • Provide a grocery tax rebate and other cash assistance to households with low incomes.

“Recovery from COVID-19 will require Alabama to go beyond a return to an inadequate status quo,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “Our elected officials must make better policy choices now to build thriving communities in the future, and ARPA funds offer a powerful pathway to help make that vision a reality. We urge the governor to seize this opportunity to increase public trust and build a brighter, more equitable future for all Alabamians.”

To strengthen the common good: Six principles for allocating Alabama’s ARPA funding

To strengthen the common good: Six principles for allocating Alabama's American Rescue Plan Act funding

Introduction

Dear Governor Ivey,

One of the darkest years in recent memory has put Alabama’s families, communities, health system, businesses – and our leaders at all levels – to the test. Thank you for all your efforts to keep Alabamians safe and secure during this unprecedented emergency. Now that a post-COVID world is dawning, the leadership test doesn’t end. Rather, it enters a critical new phase: Your vision and your actions will help determine what a post-COVID Alabama looks like, and history will record the results. Will the comfort of the familiar pull us back into “the way we’ve always done things”? Or will we count this ordeal as an awakening to bold new possibilities for our state?

For the organizations listed below, all signs point to the second option: The opportunity to address chronic problems that the pandemic has only worsened; a chance to inspire Alabamians with a recovery plan that lifts all communities toward a healthier, more prosperous future; and – most pragmatically – the power of $4 billion in new federal funding to turn vision into reality. We enclose for your consideration six principles that we believe can guide state and local leaders in the most productive, equitable and lasting use of these tax dollars.

The signers of this letter are advocates who work closely with the communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 health and economic crises. For these Alabamians, recovery from the pandemic must mean more than restoring the pre-COVID status quo. With courageous and creative leadership, community engagement across the state, and wise use of historic levels of funding, we have what we need to move Alabama forward and strengthen the common good.

We stand ready to answer any questions you may have about our recommendations.

Respectfully submitted,

The Undersigned Alabama Organizations

Signatories

The following organizations support a principled approach to American Rescue Plan Act funding that will strengthen Alabama’s common good:

ADAP
AIDS Alabama
Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
Alabama Arise
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Alabama CURE
Alabama Possible
Alabama Solutions
Alabama State Conference of the NAACP
Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc.
Birmingham Society of Friends
BirthWell Partners Community Doula Project, Birmingham
Church & Society, Anniston First United Methodist Church
Community Enabler Developer, Inc.
Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama
Disability Rights & Resources
The E.WE Foundation
Faith and Works Statewide Civic Engagement Collective
Grace Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Tuscaloosa
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Hometown Action
Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Montgomery
Jobs to Move America
League of Women Voters of Alabama
Medical Advocacy & Outreach
The Nightingale Clinic, Birmingham
Nurse Practitioner Alliance of Alabama
Open Table United Church of Christ, Mobile
People First of Alabama
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
Restorative Strategies, LLC, Birmingham
Sisters of Mercy
Sisters of St. Joseph
The Sisters, Tuscaloosa
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Jacksonville
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile
University of Montevallo Social Work Program
Volunteers of America Southeast
West Alabama Women’s Center
YMCA of Birmingham
YWCA of Central Alabama

Letter text

To Strengthen the Common Good: Six Principles for Allocating Alabama’s American Rescue Plan Act Funding

The COVID-19 crisis has created enormous new challenges for Alabama, while shining a harsh light on long-neglected ones. To strengthen and expedite recovery, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed by Congress in March 2021, is pumping $4 billion into Alabama’s economy over the next three years. New funding at this scale can be transformative for our state, but only if we take a transformative approach to how we spend it.

The starting point is recognizing and breaking our old mindset of scarce resources, limited possibilities and patchwork policy solutions. For too long, Alabama’s leaders – and the voters who empower them – have settled for poor outcomes in health, education, community development and other measures of shared prosperity, because they thought we couldn’t tackle such deep problems. The pandemic is challenging us to reclaim – and redefine – the common good. ARPA funding gives us a rare opportunity to meet the challenge, if we’re willing. The undersigned organizations offer the following six principles as a framework for seizing this unprecedented opportunity to build a better Alabama for all.

  1. Engage local communities at every step.

    The COVID pandemic has hit people where they live, work, learn and play. The best use of ARPA funds will reflect the needs and goals identified by ordinary Alabamians through a process that solicits, accommodates and heeds public input.

Crucial question

How are local leaders, advocates and community members involved in identifying and prioritizing both needs and solutions?

Recommendations
  • Identify or create effective, inclusive, results-oriented, nonpartisan, community-based councils in each county or region to develop recommendations for local ARPA funding priorities. Potential lead organizations may include United Way, community foundation or Community Action Agency advisory bodies; children’s policy councils; university extension services; or community round tables convened by local governments. Make it a priority to engage segments of the community underserved by the status quo, such as Alabamians of color, people who work for low wages or have lost jobs, and those who lack adequate basic services.
  • Provide opportunities for broad public participation in developing and finalizing local, regional and state ARPA spending plans. State leaders should agree not to appropriate ARPA funds until the public engagement process is completed.
  • Review existing community and state needs assessments to identify common local concerns, as well as gaps in information and perspective.
  • Facilitate information-sharing and coordination among local, regional and state efforts to enhance efficiency, leverage capacity and avoid duplication.
  • Designate a statewide source of technical assistance, best practices and other aids to local and regional decision-making.
  1. Aim for equity in outcomes.

    Some regions, counties, municipalities and populations have suffered deeper blows than others from the pandemic because of chronic gaps in resources, infrastructure, services and opportunities. Rural Alabamians, people of color, people with disabilities, and women have faced disproportionate impacts from both the health and economic crises. Simply restoring the prior status quo is not transformation. ARPA funding decisions should take into account the un-level playing field of COVID recovery, targeting investment toward improving the basic standards of living for areas and people long left behind. Assistance to those most deeply impacted by COVID-19 should come with as little “red tape” and administrative delay as possible. Direct cash assistance to people with low incomes should be a priority.

Crucial question

How do proposed funding allocations contribute to the removal of historic barriers to individual, family and community well-being?

Recommendations
  • Within each jurisdiction (state, region, county, city), use socioeconomic indicators such as poverty, unemployment and workforce participation rates, and racial/ethnic health disparities to target strategic, expedited community investments.
  • Provide grants to minority- or women-owned small businesses, especially those that did not receive earlier federal business loan assistance.
  • Provide up to $13 per hour in bonus or “premium” pay – on top of their regular pay – to essential public and private workers, up to $25,000 per worker per year, as allowed under the Rescue Plan, for work performed during the public health emergency, awarding the largest bonuses to the lowest-paid workers.
  • Provide cash assistance to SNAP food assistance recipients with incomes below 50% of the Federal Poverty Level.
  • Provide a grocery tax rebate to households earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Fund and train organizations that already help people access SNAP, Medicaid, tax credits and other supports as navigators for the full range of ARPA assistance, including the expanded federal Child Tax Credit.
  1. Maximize well-being by addressing health in all policies.

    What began as the COVID-19 health emergency quickly became an economic and social crisis. In turn, the toll the virus has taken on communities of color, people with disabilities and the uninsured revealed how deeply socioeconomic conditions are connected to health risks and outcomes. Nutrition, housing, transportation, education and other factors are widely recognized as social determinants of health, but Alabama has been slow to broaden our approach to health policy and funding. ARPA offers us the chance to apply the lessons of COVID-19 and design a recovery plan that puts eliminating health disparities and improving health at the center of investments in every sector.

Crucial question

How does this funding proposal advance the goal of a healthier Alabama?

Recommendations
  • Name it and claim it: There’s enough ARPA funding to achieve significant health improvement in Alabama if leaders set clear, ambitious goals and plan accordingly. 
  • Engage public health experts to incorporate health goals and strategies across the full span of ARPA allocation planning.
  • Increase professional staffing at county health departments.
  • Strengthen our workforce, families and communities by using the generous ARPA incentives (an estimated $720 million) to expand Medicaid and close the coverage gap for 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes.
  • Invest in mobile mental health crisis services and expand mental health crisis centers.
  • Expand school nurse programs and school-based mental health services.
  • Fund Healthy Food Financing grants for fresh food markets, including mobile markets, as well as local worker-owned food cooperatives to boost local economies, provide jobs and expand availability of fresh foods in food apartheid areas (where healthy food access is hindered by racially discriminatory economic or political factors) and food swamp neighborhoods (where food and beverage sources like fast food outlets, convenience stores and liquor stores crowd out healthier food options).
  1. Invest in existing assets and capacities to help funds work faster, go farther and avoid duplication.

    Over recent decades, budget cuts to education, public health and other essential services – and our failure to expand Medicaid – have left Alabama unprepared for a prolonged emergency like COVID-19. Similarly, charitable nonprofit organizations across the state have faced unprecedented demand for their services during the pandemic and risen to the challenge. By directing ARPA funds to restoring critical services and supporting experienced, trusted charitable nonprofits, state and local governments can strengthen community resources, meet needs efficiently, avoid reinventing the wheel, and multiply the economic benefit.

Crucial question

What programs and organizations are already working to meet the goals of this ARPA funding proposal, and how can a partnership approach improve outcomes?

Recommendations
  • Fund organizations that are well-positioned to reach people with significant barriers to accessing support, such as immigrants, people with disabilities and people of color with low incomes.
  • Expand community schools in neighborhoods where the pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll.
  • Provide additional funding for existing in-home early childhood education services like HIPPY, Parents as Teachers and Nurse-Family Partnership programs.
  • Increase support for school-based social and health services, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods and districts.
  • Help children catch up on unfinished learning by expanding the teacher workforce through pay increases and other supports for early childhood teachers, child care workers and special education teachers who work in at-risk communities and schools.
  • Expand existing in-home and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities.
  • Expand or develop local alternatives to incarceration such as specialized courts, community correction programs, re-entry programs and services for people at risk of offending.
  • Invest in workforce development by creating subsidized apprenticeships, two-year scholarship programs, and subsidized certificate programs for low-income workers.
  1. Think big and create a 21st-century infrastructure for the common good.

    Alabamians have long recognized the human cost of inferior and outdated public works and services like sanitation, health care, transportation and information technology systems. But the monetary cost has kept our leaders from modernizing them. COVID has revealed the deadly consequences of that neglect, and ARPA includes massive funding aimed at moving states forward on all of these fronts, including a large share for education (not addressed in these recommendations because of specific earmarking). The opportunity calls for bold leadership and vision. Our spending plan must seek to coordinate local, regional and statewide investments for fundamental and long-lasting impact.

Crucial question

How will today’s investments benefit future generations of Alabamians?

Recommendations
  • Modernize and align state agency computer systems to create a “no wrong door” approach to streamlined eligibility and enrollment across benefit programs.
  • Modernize and improve state unemployment insurance (UI) technological infrastructure, application and payment systems.
  • Upgrade water and sanitation systems, prioritizing communities with a history of unsafe water quality and waste-water disposal.
  • Provide critical infrastructure and equipment (such as trucks, refrigeration, trainers, lift gates, etc.,) to local food banks and food pantries to expand emergency food distribution.
  • Expand Alabama’s affordable housing capacity, stabilize families and communities and reduce homelessness by seeding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund with $25 million and providing grants for eligible new construction, renovation and maintenance.
  • Recognizing that lack of reliable transportation is a major hindrance to health care, economic activity and workforce development in many areas of the state, seed the Public Transportation Trust Fund with $20 million and provide state match for increased federal public transportation funding.
  • Promote equity in high-speed internet access by targeting earmarked broadband funding to help local service providers expand into underserved areas and by ensuring community oversight of access and quality standards.
  • Provide state technical assistance to localities in consolidating, evaluating and negotiating broadband contracts to minimize the danger of approving projects with little public benefit.
  1. Build public trust and engagement by following the highest standards of documentation, transparency and accessibility of information about funding awards and expenditures. 

    Spending taxpayer dollars is always a tremendous responsibility. When it comes to spending billions in a short time, the potential for slow uptake, poor decisions and misuse only increases. Alabama can ensure that the generous ARPA funds do their appointed job by establishing clear guidelines and full disclosure for the entire funding process, from eligibility of applicants to allocation decisions to project expenditures and results.

Crucial question

How will Alabamians be able to track the allocation, use and impact of their federal ARPA tax dollars in the state?

Recommendations
  • Create and maintain a public database of state and local ARPA funding allocations and expenditures, easily searchable and sortable by project or partner name, policy topic, service area, grant amount, award date, expenditure date and other key factors.
  • Adopt simple, accessible application and reporting requirements that allow grantees and recipients to establish their credibility and tell their story without jumping unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.
  • Use local ARPA planning groups as conduits for ongoing reporting and feedback about plan implementation, obstacles, impact and sustainability. Build a robust outreach operation to help people access available federal, state and local aid.

Federal relief funds could transform Alabama’s future

How often have we gotten to say that it’s raining money in Alabama? That’s the image that comes to mind as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed in March, begins to direct more than $4 billion in new federal funds into the state over the next three years.

The funding could help Alabama make historic progress in public health, education, family well-being and community viability if spent wisely and equitably. It also offers generous incentives that would more than offset the state’s initial cost to expand Medicaid. This new COVID-19 relief comes on top of $1.9 billion Alabama got under the CARES Act last year.

The state government will receive more than $2 billion under ARPA. Counties will get nearly $1 billion. Alabama’s 21 largest cities will receive more than $400 million, and other municipalities will get nearly $400 million as well. Both the state and localities may use funds to offset the pandemic’s strains on families, small businesses, public health and infrastructure like water and sewer systems and high-speed broadband networks.

Portions of ARPA money are earmarked for direct payments to local school districts. Other funds are dedicated to provide rental assistance and make child care more affordable and accessible.

The act also temporarily boosts the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit and temporarily increases food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and WIC. In addition to these supports, ARPA also provides one-time cash payments ($1,400 each for most Americans). And it provides direct assistance for health care, funeral expenses and other essential needs.

Arise will continue to follow these funding streams with the goal of ensuring equitable distribution and transparency. And we will advocate to make the temporary improvements permanent in the next round of federal relief.

Arise advances justice in a pandemic session

Advocacy barriers for Alabama Arise members were extraordinarily high during the Legislature’s 2021 regular session. The COVID-19 pandemic limited physical access to the State House and made a difficult policy landscape even rockier.

But Arise members were undeterred. They spoke out forcefully and repeatedly for justice and opportunity. And the result was real, meaningful progress on multiple issue priorities.

This year brought advances on criminal justice reform and internet access. It delivered stronger investment in early education and preserved funding for Medicaid and mental health care. And it saw efforts to chill free speech and erode the Department of Public Health’s effectiveness defeated.

Wins on expanding broadband, reforming civil asset forfeiture

Arise members made their presence known throughout the session. They gathered monthly for online Membership Monday events to stay engaged and connect with advocates across Alabama. On May 18, nearly 100 people attended a virtual recap event to debrief the session and prepare for next steps. And throughout the year, our supporters flooded email inboxes and rang phones off the hook, contacting legislators and Gov. Kay Ivey more than 14,000 times.

Arise action alerts by the numbers This year, Arise’s dedicated members and supporters consistently reached out to lawmakers when we asked. It’s impossible to overstate just how critical it is for our legislators to know what their constituents want. We’re so grateful to everyone who sent messages from our action alerts during this session. Here are a few examples of just how many messages you sent to legislators and the governor in response to Arise and Cover Alabama action alerts during the 2021 regular session: Medicaid expansion: 12,442 Voting rights and protecting free speech: 597 Protecting public health: 406 Civil asset forfeiture reform: 266 Other criminal justice reforms: 389

 

That advocacy worked. Lawmakers passed SB 215 by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to promote broadband expansion to rural communities and other underserved areas. And legislators finally began to rein in civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property without a criminal conviction.

SB 210 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, doesn’t end civil asset forfeiture, but it makes some important initial improvements. Those changes include exempting some property from forfeiture and strengthening protections for innocent owners.

Successful defense against public health threats, anti-protest bill

Arise advocacy helped stop harmful proposals as well. Our members played a key role in blocking a plan to limit the governor and public health officials’ ability to respond to emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. After our members sounded the alarm, SB 97 by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, lost a House procedural vote in the session’s final hours.

Arise members also helped halt a threat to free speech. HB 445 by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, would have expanded law enforcement’s powers to arrest protesters for “rioting” and imposed harsh mandatory minimum sentences on people convicted under the law. The bill passed in the House but died in the Senate.

The Legislature likely isn’t done this year. Lawmakers expect one or more special sessions to address unfinished business like redistricting, prison overcrowding and allocating federal relief funds. Whenever the next session may be, Arise members will be ready, advocating as always for a better, more inclusive Alabama.