This week Joe Biden’s White House announced that the President would encourage mayors and governors - or “cities and states” - around the country to use unspent American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to fund police. Not rent relief. Not utility debt relief. Not supplement food assistance. Not even public transit to relieve gas price pressures. More police. And they did it while hinting that it’s to provide funding for more cops and overtime pay for those cops to tamp down protest in the summer of 2022, relying on falsified reports about made-up “crime wave” stories to gin up support for more police. That data is wrong, and journalists and researchers have documented this exhaustively.
When it comes the “the ideas lying around” it’s not that any old idea can get picked up, even when they are well developed and proven to improve people’s lives and contribute to healthier infrastructure. (By the way, America has a C- grade on infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers, but besides that there’s no other pressing reason to invest in it.)
For just one example of a good idea that isn’t just handing over public dollars to already inflated police budgets, look at the work of frontline activists with RePower LA inside the climate and clean energy movement. They developed a comprehensive plan and deployment strategy to #EraseUtilityDebt. This plan successfully moved CARES Act funds, ARPA funds, and convinced the publicly owned power and water company to put even more of its own funds towards erasing utility debt for hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in Los Angeles. In total, these local organizers moved $333 million to pay off the utility debt of people in Los Angeles, doing their part to stem a statewide crisis numbering in the billions of dollars.
President Biden could have taken the lead of the largest public power and water utility company in the United States. He and his administration could have copied the plan immediately and tweaked it for every public power utility and public water utility in the country. The President and his staff could go further and urge mayors and governors to act to re-connect every person who has been disconnected from the water and energy utilities in the country, relieving one of the largest pressure points that lead to referrals to debt collectors in the American household budget behind housing costs and medical debt.
They could, but instead they recommended to send the police more money. Keeping people housed, air conditioned, and with running water seems like a good idea for society. Usually countries with large numbers of people not receiving those things are heralded as failed states and impoverished “other” places.
If you object to simply using public transfers to make people’s lives better, despite demonstrable evidence that it does in fact move the needle on deep poverty, you could advocate for the funds to go to long-neglected infrastructure like getting the lead out of water pipes and putting water utilities back on more solid financial footing, so they don’t fall prey to private equity vultures who are driving prices up and making social conditions worse in housing and everywhere else.
This is one of the best ideas lying around. It would immediately improve people’s lives. It would shore up the finances of stressed utility company operational models. It would begin to repair decades of deep disinvestment in utility infrastructure. But the best the White House can come up with is to fund more police, which tells you where their priorities really are.