We cannot fix racial inequities without radically reshaping our budgets

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One of the surprising byproducts of the protests over George Floyd’s murder is a movement to analyze government budgets.

Many are asking cities to reexamine how much they spend on policing in comparison to mental health resources or poverty mitigation programs that are proven to reduce the need for policing in the first place.

This focus on budgeting is a welcome sign. I’ve long believed that what we fund dictates what we value. And for far too many of our Republican lawmakers, alleviating racial and socioeconomic inequality isn’t high on the list.

Though most protesters are currently focused on city budgets, here in Arizona, the greatest inequities are baked into our state budget.

It’s the state, after all, that allocates funding for education, corrections, economic assistance and child welfare (among other important things). And it’s the state that determines which individuals will shoulder the costs of these programs.

For an example of how a budget can exacerbate or improve inequities among groups, look no further than how we fund our public education system.

Arizona is one of just a handful of states that has refused to implement poverty weights, which allocate additional dollars to schools with high concentrations of low-income students. We refuse to do this, even though we know poverty disproportionately impacts students of color and correlates directly with educational achievement and outcomes.

Our legislators also refuse to make substantial investments in high-quality pre-K, which sets the stage for a child’s future success. Instead, we spend millions rewarding schools with large numbers of students who test well through a scheme known as results-based funding, which, unsurprisingly, benefits wealthier schools.

And because our base level funding is so minimal, we force districts to rely heavily on property taxes, which create even more inequities among property rich and property poor districts.

But perhaps even worse than the investments we’ve refused to make are the disinvestments we consciously make every single year.

Instead of keeping public funds in our public schools, we divert tens of millions of dollars to unaccountable private and religious schools through tax credits and vouchers. We do this while claiming we still don’t have enough money to fully restore the cuts we made to public schools during the last recession.

I’ve written extensively about our biased funding system, but until last year, I didn’t realize the scope of the unbalance.

As reported by Arizona Mirror, a national study showed Arizona as a leader among states when it comes to funding disparities between schools that serve a majority of white students versus nonwhite students. 

That’s right, we’re No. 1 for funding discrimination.

The amount isn’t insignificant, either. The study indicated we short our schools with large majorities of non-white students more than $7,600 per pupil per year.

It’s been more than a year since this shameful revelation was brought to light, but not a damn thing has changed. Legislators continue to prop up test-based funding scams and approve additional expansions of private school vouchers and tax credits.

With an education system that favors one racial group over another, is it any surprise that the Mirror also found huge inequities in poverty, housing and incarceration?

As pointed out last week, the poverty rate for Back and Hispanic Arizonans is double what it is for white Arizonans. Among Native Americans it’s even worse: 34% compared to 9%.

Similarly, home-ownership rates for Black Arizonans are less than half of what white Arizonans enjoy, while incarceration rates are substantially higher and drug sentences 50% longer.

Though it’s costlier to incarcerate than educate, our elected officials have decided that’s the route they prefer. As our neighboring states reform sentencing laws and use other alternatives to prison, we continue to lock people up at some of the highest rates in the nation, spending more than $1 billion each year.

The news isn’t bad for everyone, though. Wealthy Arizonans and corporations have had a tremendous run.

Decades of tax cuts have resulted in a majority of Arizona corporations—some 73%—  paying $50 or less in state income tax. Meanwhile, middle- and low-income Arizonans shoulder a much higher tax burden than their wealthier (and oftentimes, white) peers.

If Arizonans are truly dismayed by systemic inequities, then we must work to reverse our lopsided tax system and radically redesign our spending priorities. That’s the only way we’ll ever bridge racial and socioeconomic gaps and create a budget that values the lives of all Arizonans.

Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.