The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Breanne Armbrust
The Commonwealth of Virginia finds itself in a unique position — in the middle of a historic pandemic with a budget surplus of $2.6 billion at the start of the new fiscal year. Like many community activists around Virginia, I immediately thought of how those funds could be used to directly benefit Virginians that are reeling from decades of divestment and more than a year in crisis due to COVID-19.
The gaps in Virginia’s government infrastructure existed long before the pandemic. People in our community saw a need and formed mutual aid organizations, providing financial assistance and resources to help their neighbors. Some nonprofit organizations have also stepped up in unprecedented ways to help families survive.
We spend a lot of our time at the Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC Fulton) helping families get support, particularly those without reliable access to technology. While most of this work isn’t new, the demand has increased during the pandemic. The assistance that we provide includes helping individuals navigate online DMV transactions, accessing unemployment insurance benefits, offering COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics, constant community outreach and canvassing and stepping up to provide expanded access to food.
The reality is, it is not easy to navigate services from state agencies during an unprecedented public health pandemic, especially when these state agencies have been historically underfunded for years. This problem is nothing new for the many families that NRC Fulton supports each month that make less than $18,000 a year. We find ourselves spending weeks at a time to get state agencies to respond to us as we assist our neighbors.
We have spent countless hours contacting the Virginia Employment Commission leadership to assist community members that have still not received payment for unemployment or decisions related to their cases— some more than a year after their initial filing. We even found ourselves advocating for months to get COVID-19 testing and vaccine clinics to be held at our site. All of this took significant effort on our part — after community members already tried on their own.
One reason that Virginia has avoided an even greater humanitarian crisis thus far is largely because of mutual aid groups and organizations like Neighborhood Resource Center stepping into the chasm — it is not because our state government is successfully closing these gaps.
None of the barriers outlined above are new — they have existed for decades due to funding decisions by state lawmakers and have widened existing racial and wealth inequities across Virginia.
Unfortunately, the $2.6 billion surplus is limited, one-time funding that has already been accounted for, with a majority being deposited into the state’s reserve funds. State lawmakers need to act quickly and boldly to raise the necessary revenues to advance racial and economic justice in Virginia. Ensuring wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share of taxes would help adequately fund public education, housing and health care.
We find ourselves at the brink of what appears to be another devastating wave of COVID-19 —a disease that will continue to disproportionately impact Black, brown, immigrant, and White low-income people in Virginia.
We need strong leaders that will make the bold choice to fix the state’s tax code and invest in services and programs that will support all communities throughout our state.
Breanne Armbrust is executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton in Richmond.
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