Spotlight Exclusives

Building Back Better: A Post-Pandemic Blueprint From State And Local Leaders

Lee Harris and Debbie Cox Bultan Lee Harris and Debbie Cox Bultan, posted on

Few groups have felt the pain and pressures and demands of the past year more than America’s state and local leaders, who have not only seen the sad human toll of the pandemic up close, but also have been crucial in finding solutions. In that spirit, the NewDeal Forum convened a Renewing America Task Force comprised of state and local leaders to try to offer short-term and long-term policies on a variety of issues impacted by COVID-19. The task force has been offering policy suggestions throughout the past year and recently compiled all of them, plus some additional material, in a new report, Policy Guidelines & Proposals to Build Back Better. Task Force co-chair Lee Harris, the mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., and NewDeal CEO Debbie Cox Bultan spoke with Spotlight about the report. The transcript of the conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Debbie, can you give us some of the background on the Renewing America task force and report?

Debbie Cox Bultan: We just realized that we were facing unprecedented times and challenges that were going to require all hands on deck and that so much of what we were seeing, particularly absent federal leadership at the very beginning, was happening at the state and local level. We decided that what we were uniquely positioned to do, with this national network of thoughtful problem solvers across the country, was to come together and try to launch this Renewing America Task Force and talk about issues that were going to be critical to the economic recovery of the country as well as the disproportionate impact on communities of color and how we could begin to address some of those long-standing racial inequities.

We reached out to a number of our leaders; our co-chairs are Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Maryland Delegate Brook Lierman, Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read and, of course, Mayor Harris. We wanted a good representation from across the country in terms of level of government that included state legislators and mayors, statewide and county office holders, and geographic diversity as well. We asked them to help us identify issues that they thought would fit the bill. We’ve had a lot of experience with working groups in the past, when we’ve normally spent a year or so looking at a topic and then released recommendations. The urgency here was such that we wanted to do it a little differently. Each co-chair led one of the topics and then we would meet with other NewDEAL leaders and experts across the country and convene around solutions and what was working around the country. We’d then put out those recommendations in a two-page document right after that meeting; this report is a culmination of that, pulling all those individual recommendations out, with some additional information that hadn’t been released previously. The topics we covered, with our leader’s input, were housing, transit, childcare, small business, broadband and modernizing the social safety net.

Mayor Harris, from your perspective, what was this process like?

Mayor Lee Harris: This was a very much-needed process. I think we’re facing something that none of us have seen in our lifetime; we’re facing a pandemic that is heavily falling on the state and local levels of government and the challenge of the pandemic seemed to expand every single week or two. We think we’ve turned the corner and then there are new challenges. You saw the weather in Texas; we had the same kind of significant weather event in Tennessee. We’re trying to get our water back, we’re trying to navigate the after-effects of one of the worst snow storms in 50 years. We’re trying to re-open schools, which just happened today (March 1). We’re trying to do the economic recovery and not to mention the biggest logistical enterprise that’s ever been tried at the state and local level, which is getting shots in arms, and for Shelby County it’s 1.5 million shots in arms. So, it’s quite the undertaking at this level

Let’s look at some specific issue areas. Mayor, you want to start with housing and talk about some of the broad strokes of the report and then some of what you’re doing at the local level?

With respect to housing, the biggest issue for us at the state and local level and for the partner leaders in the NewDEAL is eviction assistance and the number of households that are facing evictions as a result of the pandemic. Our numbers have increased incredibly and each one of those eviction cases has to be handled on a customized basis. It’s not enough to set up a program; you also have to make sure that those facing eviction get lawyers and that those lawyers have some ability to settle these cases and to negotiate with landlords for the right to stay in place during the pandemic. It’s a pretty complicated process, and again, it’s customized, tenant by tenant, and with a mix of federal and local resources. For us, the state and county came together to do that. We put together a massive fund – I think it was $4 million or $5 million the first round. The current fund that we’re trying to put together is going to be over $25 million for eviction assistance, so it’s going to be really, really impactful. The other side is mortgage and rent relief and we’ve been able to put together a variety of programs there to help folks who could document that one of the reasons they missed a mortgage payment was because of the pandemic. Those programs are much-needed.

What about childcare and the education crisis prompted by the pandemic?

Childcare is just another really big issue during the course of this pandemic. We have 132,000 kids in the Shelby County School system and then we have about another 60,000 or so across our other municipalities in the county. So that’s a lot of kids and the Shelby County students, which is one of the largest districts in the country, just started back to school today. Before that it was virtual, so that’s a year of virtual schooling. Talk about an unprecedented school year – the school system had to deliver devices to all those folks and then, in addition along the way, we found we needed to deliver everybody headphones, because you could have two different kids in a household in two different grades. It’s devices, it’s the headphones, it’s the broadband – we had to set up hot spots over the county. For the more difficult situations, where the family could not stay home with their virtual learner, we developed a Virtual Learning Academy for kids up to age 10. This was the city and county, in partnership with the YMCA  and in Shelby County government, we opened up our own Virtual Learning Academy. In my building, which probably has 500 county employees, we carved out a Virtual Learning Academy; they took over one of our floors and turned it into a classroom. It was a joy, to tell you the truth, in such a challenging period, to see those kids. We just said goodbye to those kids and had lunch with the teachers and now the kids are back in school.

Have you had the time to start thinking about longer-term strategies to help your residents begin to heal after such an extraordinary year?

One of the things that we’re committed to is to see whether we can give an ongoing childcare benefit to our employees. That work is ongoing while at the same time, we’re having to constantly update all of our policies on benefits. We adopted paid family leave and made sure that policy was up to date for the pandemic. Something else we’ve worked on is something called “safe leave” – the idea that since during COVID, domestic violence is going through the roof and when you have cases of domestic violence, the most important thing is for the survivor to have a chance to change their address, to change their kid’s schooling and make various reports to law enforcement officials. A lot of folks, particularly hourly wage-earners, can’t take time off to do those kinds of things, so they’re in a fix. So, we’ve passed the first hurdle in passing a domestic safe leave policy which basically says you can take some off to take care of those things. That intersects with crime and we’ve seen crime go through the roof since the pandemic. Last year we had over 300 murders, which was record breaking. When you look at those murders, a good portion of them are intimate relationships. Domestic violence, in too many cases, becomes domestic homicide, so if you want to do something about your homicide rate, you have to realize that many of these deaths are coming out of intimate relationships and you’ve got to do something to help people who are in a violent relationship.

The pandemic has required us to look at everything we do, and do it while we’re in the air, navigating a jumbo jet, all at once, while also coordinating with all the state and local officials and agencies that are involved. It’s quite the undertaking.

How helpful is it to be part of an organization like NewDEAL where you have the opportunity to sit and talk with other mayors and find out what they’re doing that works when you’re in the midst of a crisis like this?

It’s extraordinary, the sharing. Because remember, for state and local leaders during a pandemic, there’s not a lot of safe spaces. Every single person around my community has had to sacrifice one way or another, and so, every single person has good reason to be frustrated. And every single person believes this should have been solved yesterday. And quickly. And perfectly. None of that is happening, which means even more frustration and makes it all the more important right now to have others we can talk to who are experiencing this and working through things because this is all new to all of us. This is really, really tough work and one thing I know is that we need each other.

Are there specific ideas in the task force report that you feel have gotten a lot of pick-up from other mayors?

I think there are a lot of things that have been important, like support for transit – transit really has taken a huge hit, but a lot of our workers depend on transit to get from place to place so we can’t take our eye off it. We have to continue to invest in it and figure out ways to innovate, even in a pandemic. Broadband is another – before COVID we talked a lot about rural broadband but everyone knows now it’s not just a rural problem. Urban students stand to lose a lot if they don’t have access to broadband and broadband is not as reliable in urban areas as you would think. And when it is reliable, it may be out of range in terms of price. The vaccination effort also depends a lot of broadband access and digital skills. On every one of these issues, it’s been so important to be able to bounce ideas off folks who are facing some of the same issues. It’s a long road and everybody realizes there will be a lot of adjustments along the way but we’ve got to get there and I’m hopeful we’ll get there in 2021, in terms of some kind of normalcy.

Debbie Cox Bultan: If I can just jump in on one thing, to add to what the mayor was saying. You had asked about longer term thinking and I did want to point out that in the report, we really did want to have an eye toward building back better, to use the president’s words. As the mayor mentioned, this is a once in a generation opportunity to rethink everything, frankly. In all the areas of the report that the mayor has been talking about, we all know that the way the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on certain communities, particularly communities of color. It’s super important, and the report highlights principles under each of the topics on how to not just respond immediately but build back better in the long term. Just to name three principles that showed up every single topic, there was improving the use of data, targeting limited funds to bridge gaps and addressing some of those underlying structural issues. This is not meant to be just a short term report; this is meant to be looking ahead and making sure that we can really rebuild an America that looks better for everybody.

Mayor, in terms of some of those longer term structural changes, has this awful year made some of your constituents more open to bolder changes when it comes to the safety net or some of these other issues that we’ve talked about?

I think that’s right and I think the polling reflects that, that direct payments to residents right now is strongly favored by most Americans. And that’s a change. I think people are much more open now to understanding now that we’re all in this together and that we depend heavily on one another for our safety. I think the fact that so many people had very few options in trying to get through this pandemic was really eye-opening to many in my community. I think people understand now that their health is tied to their neighbor’s health. And once you see that, it helps you see a lot more about what community really means.

For either of you, will there be more to come on this report?

Debbie Cox Bultan: This is really just the beginning. The idea here is to keep our foot on the pedal to be able to keep talking about these issues and the implementation on these issues around the country, making sure we’re working closely with the Biden administration to promote those ideas that they’re supportive of and making sure that ideas that are working at the state and local level get pushed up into the administration. We’ll be working on this for months and years to come.

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