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President Joe Biden sought to elevate funding for civil rights offices across more than a half-dozen federal agencies in his first budget proposal, a move advocates say could mark a tangible step toward equality if Congress agrees.
Offices for civil rights at the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Education, Heath and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency would all get budget hikes under Biden’s $1.5 trillion discretionary spending request to Congress on Friday.
The administration has made racial equity one of its top priorities, and said it would be embedded across all federal agencies. The president promised in his inauguration address that “the dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
“So often we hear people talk and the resources aren’t there to achieve what they said they’re going to do,” said Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race. “These budget requests, for the first time I feel their sincerity in having racial equity.”
The president’s budget outline starts a months-long process in which Congress is likely to significantly change many of the priorities, with some Republicans already announcing their opposition to the broader plan.
“At the end of the day, the question is going to be what is the actual dollar number, and most importantly, what will those funds mean for people’s experiences of discrimination,” said Liz King, senior director for the education equity program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Civil rights enforcement has been underfunded for a very long time.”
Here is a breakdown of the the administration’s proposed civil rights and equity funding:
Enforcement in Education
The White House budget calls for boosting funding to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights by 10% to $144 million. Advocacy groups urged congressional appropriators last month to double the funding for the agency’s civil rights enforcement arm to $260 million.
In a March 25 letter, organizations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the office had been underfunded for years but faces complex civil rights issues due to the shift to virtual learning and national protests over police misconduct. The office is also charged with providing guidance to schools on Title IX campus sexual misconduct regulations issued by the Trump administration last year.
King said she would be looking at whether the proposed funding facilitates more rapid responses to complaints of discrimination and increases in investigations.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last month that the department wants to reinvigorate the Office of Civil Rights because “it did not get a lot of resources or attention during the Trump administration.” Biden proposed significantly boosting the budget for the Office of Civil Rights, but didn’t specify an amount.
Biden also requested $110 million for a new “Thriving Communities” initiative, which would support the administration’s transportation equity goal by providing capacity-building and technical assistance grants to underserved areas.
More Money for Civil Rights at DOJ
Biden wants a $33 million boost for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Community Relations, giving it a total of $209 million. The White House said those funds would go toward a variety of programs including police reform, the prosecution of hate crimes, and enforcing voting rights.
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) praised Biden’s proposal, saying the funding for civil rights enforcement at the Justice Department “fosters safer and more equitable communities.”
The Department of Agriculture would get more funding for its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, although the budget didn’t specify how much. The USDA is also proposing to create an Equity Commission that would examine how farm programs may have led to inequities for farmers.
The budget would also give an additional $65 million to a rural connectivity program at USDA that would fund grants and loans to deploy broadband to underserved areas that lack access, such as tribal communities. “High-speed internet would serve as an economic equalizer for rural America,” the administration said.
The Federal Communications Commission’s annual broadband deployment report in 2020 found 28% of residents on tribal lands lack fixed broadband, compared to just 1.5% of residents in urban areas.
Complaints at Homeland Security
Biden is proposing to increase funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to address complaints the office has received but hasn’t processed because it is short on staff.
The plan also includes $470 million, a 22% increase, for the professional responsibility offices at both Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The White House said that money would help the agencies better pursue investigative matters relating to White supremacy and discrimination.
The civil rights office in the Department of Health and Human Services would get a 24% budget hike, to $48 million.
The request also includes $153 million for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program to improve equity and data collection for racial and ethnic populations.
The administration wants to make the “largest investment in environmental justice in history,” including an overhaul of the Environment Protection Agency’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office.
Biden is seeking $936 million for an EPA program to “advance racial equity, and secure environmental justice for communities who too often have been left behind, including rural and tribal communities.”
With assistance from Andrew Kreighbaum and Rebecca Kern
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org