Time to deliver on economic policies for working families

March 3, 2020 12:02 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

As we approach the closing weeks of the 2020 legislative session, Virginia lawmakers are poised to make significant and historic progress on issues that affect the economic opportunity of Virginia families. For too long, the conversation in Richmond has prioritized the needs of big business while working families continue to fall further behind. This year we can flip the script and deliver on economic policies that lift up working families — and it’s time for the legislature to seize the opportunity.

Several bills are headed to the governor’s desk while the fate of others are yet to be determined. Virginia lawmakers should roll up their sleeves to get critical family economic issues — such as raising the minimum wage, college affordability, studying paid family and medical leave and surprise billing — across the finish line and ensure that Virginia is a commonwealth where all families can thrive.

Everyone in Virginia working a full-time job should earn enough to provide for their family. However, for many this is not the case. Raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and ending exclusions rooted in the Jim Crow era would put much-needed money in the pockets of working families, particularly women of color whose labor has been devalued far too long. The House proposal would do just that, taking profound steps in boosting the economic security of Virginia families — lifting wages for 1.2 million people in Virginia, 92% of whom are over age 20. The Senate has proposed a much more limited approach: slow wage increases, adding new exclusions and a regional scheme where most of Virginia would fall further behind Northern Virginia every year after 2023. Most of Virginia wouldn’t see a $15 minimum wage until 2032 or later under this plan. After waiting more than 10 years for a raise, working people in Virginia deserve a bold approach that will make a real difference in paying the bills.

And working families shouldn’t have to fear losing these wages when they need to take time off to care for themselves or their loved ones — something every working person will need to do at some point. A statewide paid family and medical leave (PFML) program would allow all working Virginians the opportunity to take leave, guaranteeing a portion of their wages to continue to pay for family essentials. State lawmakers will study a statewide PFML program this summer and this must remain a priority for improving the economic opportunity of Virginia families.

For families experiencing especially difficult financial times, Virginia lawmakers are taking steps toward strengthening the state’s safety net. This year, both the House and Senate have used available money in the TANF trust fund to allow more low-income families with children to qualify for cash assistance and to raise benefit levels (although they will remain well below 1985 inflation-adjusted levels due to policymakers allowing them to erode for nearly three decades). As policymakers make their final decisions on use of the TANF trust fund, they should prioritize using this money to directly help low-income families.

One thing that keeps families from becoming more financially secure is debt — often through trying to gain skills or seek medical care. Tuition has increased dramatically at Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities, and students who face the greatest economic and racial barriers to higher education are particularly impacted by these rising costs. Over one million Virginia borrowers owe over $41 billion on student loans, an amount that is quickly climbing. Thankfully, the budget proposals include additional state funding to expand access to post-secondary education in a number of ways, including the “G3” initiative and an increase in need-based financial aid, as well as funds to stem tuition growth, proposed by the House.

While those with health insurance expect to be shielded from unexpected medical costs, surprise medical bills (resulting from out-of-network provider care at an in-network facility) create additional financial burdens. The House and Senate are considering different proposals to determine who should pay in this situation, but one thing is clear: this should not fall to the individual.

One area has agreement among state leaders when it comes to health care: the effort to tie work reporting requirements to Medicaid’s health coverage must end. Across the country, this policy has been halted due to federal lawsuits and ongoing research highlighting the policy’s negative effects. By supporting the governor’s choice to strike this language from the budget, the House and Senate would allow Medicaid’s health coverage to truly be a work support — allowing people the health care opportunity they need to get to the job they likely already have.

The story of this session can be one of historic progress on economic fairness and opportunity for every person in Virginia. Families in Virginia want an economy that works for everyone; lawmakers must now take action to move Virginia toward a more prosperous place to call home.

  • Anna Scholl, executive director, Progress Virginia
  • Michael Cassidy, president, The Commonwealth Institute
  • Tram Nguyen, co-executive director, New Virginia Majority

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Guest Column

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