Since the coronavirus arrived in the United States, Georgia has seen some of the highest numbers of infections and deaths. Elected officials have attempted to mitigate the ongoing health and economic impact, but it’s clear our state must do more to put people first.

Too few Georgia workers have access to health insurance or paid leave, and with the state recently allowing some businesses to reopen, more Georgians may soon be at risk. Prioritizing the economy over health and safety shows a failure to recognize that our economy’s number one asset is our people.

Our economy will not thrive if people do not survive this crisis.

Before COVID-19, many Georgians already endured poverty, limited economic mobility and systemic barriers stemming from a long history of racism and discrimination. About 3.6 million Georgians make $24,000 a year or less, and 47% of workers are considered low-wage. Georgians of color are even more vulnerable amid this pandemic due to the host of health and economic disparities they face.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute staff regularly hears these themes on statewide listening tours. I can’t forget what I heard from community members in Albany, an area hit particularly hard by the pandemic. While some were optimistic about local opportunities, many expressed frustration over a lack of quality jobs, housing instability, racial tensions and access to health care. “To access care, you have to drive to the next county. You may be in the van for eight hours …” one Albany resident shared.

Georgia regularly boasts about being a low-tax state — but this also means we are a low-investment state. While we cannot control global pandemics, we can prioritize people-first investments that protect the health and well-being of our residents, expand economic opportunity and build a sustainable, fair revenue base.

Layoffs and social distancing will have a deep effect on state revenues. Due to steep losses in sales and income tax, the state could deplete the $2.7 billion in our Revenue Shortfall Reserve and see a $4 billion budget shortfall over the next 15 months. Georgia lacks the revenues and capacity to manage this crisis alone. The state can use about $3.5 billion in federal relief funds to aid in our response, but the funding is limited in scope and will not cover many of Georgia’s needs. More federal aid is needed to avoid a recession, and state leaders must employ the best policy solutions and investments to help Georgians weather this crisis.

Every dollar is critical. Before this pandemic hit with full force, our General Assembly and governor enacted an amended budget that included deep cuts to services and programs. These cuts stemmed from a declining revenue base caused by recent tax changes and the effects of Hurricane Michael. Already, we are hearing calls for cuts of 14% when the Legislature resumes.

But disinvestment stemming from budget cuts has exacerbated the effects of COVID-19 in Georgia, and budget cuts will not help us recover. Georgia must find new ways to raise revenue, such as raising our tobacco tax to the national average and trimming back special-interest tax breaks that do not deliver on their promises.

Lawmakers should also act to bolster public health. Georgia’s uninsured rate — third-highest in the nation — makes more than 500,000 Georgians particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Georgia needs Medicaid expansion, the most cost-effective action to expand coverage and draw down more federal dollars to save lives. Gov. Kemp can use his powers to extend coverage during the public health emergency, and when they reconvene, the Legislature can act to make his change permanent.

Workers facing layoffs and furloughs also need more support. Projections show more than 608,000 jobs will be lost in Georgia by July. Thus far, these losses have disproportionately affected Black and Latinx Georgians, who are more likely to work in jobs affected by the current economic uncertainty.

The Department of Labor has extended benefit periods for Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance program from 14 to 26 weeks. The CARES Act also expands eligibility to include some workers previously left out. Unfortunately, with the recent reopening of some industries, workers who do not feel safe to return to work may lose UI eligibility.

Finally, the state must invest in the economic mobility of our people. Leaders have removed some barriers to accessing safety net programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. However, in order to support families facing lost wages, Georgia should also deploy the $67 million we have in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserves for short-term assistance and submit a request for Panic-EBT, a new program meant to help families with children afford food.

Georgia is stronger when every resident can receive the care they need and weather economic storms when they come. Let’s defeat COVID-19 and then make sure we’re ready for the next one.

Taifa S. Butler is president and CEO of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

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