President Joe Biden is proposing a $5 billion investment in community-based gun violence prevention programs over eight years, setting up a showdown with Congress over the federal government’s largest potential outlay for anti-violence work in the nation’s history.
Biden proposed the violence prevention funding as part of his American Jobs Plan, a sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure package that the White House billed as the next phase of its COVID-19 recovery strategy. The bill includes major investments in transportation, manufacturing and public utilities — adding up to legislation that Biden says can spur a recovery beyond returning the country to prepandemic employment levels. More than that, he says he hopes to radically reshape the economy — in part by leveling the playing field for communities of color.
How the funding would be allocated is unclear. Supporters say they intend to work with federal officials to make sure grants go to established groups on the ground and are not lost in state or local bureaucracies. Fatimah Loren Dreier, the executive director of the New Jersey-based Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, said the idea is to steer the money to evidence-backed strategies focused on providing housing, employment, and other services to people at the greatest risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence.
Susan Rice, the director of Biden’s domestic policy council, told NPR that the administration is considering a variety of funding streams. “For the most part, investments in community violence ought to go to local organizations with proven track records for success,” Rice said. “Whether it’s hospital-based interventions, whether it’s community services, support for victims, support for the formerly incarcerated.”
The $5 billion is much bigger than the $900 million that Biden pledged for community gun violence prevention during his campaign for president. By including it in a jobs bill — as opposed to, say, a crime bill — Biden seems to be tying the costs of community gun violence to the economic health of the country, and its ability to rebound from the pandemic. That’s different from the way the federal government has tackled this crisis in the past, namely through tough-on-crime measures and enhanced penalties that have filled prisons and disproportionately impacted people of color.
“There is a direct correlation between gun violence and the impacts on our economy, the impacts on jobs in our country,” said Greg Jackson, who leads national advocacy efforts for the Community Justice Action Fund. “So this $5 billion is truly an investment in life as opposed to the traditional way that America has gone, by paying for death. We are glad to see that the White House sees that direct correlation.”
Biden’s proposal comes amid record levels of violence that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. There were more than 20,000 gun deaths in the U.S. last year, not counting suicides, according to Gun Violence Archive — the highest year-over-year increase in the seven years the site has been tracking shootings. That includes a surge in mass shootings that disproportionately impacted majority-Black neighborhoods.
The proposed funding boost for anti-violence initiatives is just shy of the $5.3 billion requested by Fund Peace, a coalition of Black- and Brown-led groups formed in February amid efforts to garner financial help from the White House for struggling community programs. Fund Peace says the proposed earmark is the culmination of months of lobbying directed at Biden’s inner circle and Congressional lawmakers — a concerted push by advocates to prop up community-led violence reduction programs that for decades have grappled with shoestring budgets and sporadic funding.
The Biden proposal presents “an opportunity to change the tide in communities that have been impacted by violence generation after generation for decades,” Dreier said. “We have the opportunity to do something transformative.”
Studies on the effectiveness of community-based violence prevention efforts have found mixed results, but researchers generally agree that such programs can be beneficial if implemented appropriately. New York City neighborhoods served by a city-operated violence interruption network averaged a 40 percent reduction in shootings between 2010 and 2019. A similar violence interruption program was credited with helping drive a 50 percent reduction in homicides in Oakland, California, between 2009 and 2018.
Biden intends to pay for his jobs package by hiking taxes on corporations and increasing enforcement of the tax code. He’s proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from its current rate of 21 percent. He also wants to increase taxes for corporations that derive some of their profits overseas, crack down on offshore tax havens, and eliminate some deductions and credits for the fossil fuel industry.
Republicans have already begun lining up in opposition to the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor last week that Biden’s infrastructure proposal “may actually be a Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left-wing policies.” Democrats could avoid the threat of a filibuster in the evenly split chamber by passing the package through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority. Democrats used budget reconciliation to pass Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill. But Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat and a key vote, has balked at voting for an infrastructure bill that lacks Republican support. Moderate Democrats are also reportedly concerned about running up the federal deficit so soon after spending $1.9 trillion on COVID relief.
Veering away from carceral solutions to gun violence “is critical to reforming our criminal justice system,” Scott Roberts, a senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy organization, said on a call with the news media. “It’s time to turn the page.”
Fund Peace’s leaders say treating gun violence as an economic issue makes sense. They point to a recent report showing that gun violence costs the American economy more than $280 billion a year in direct and indirect costs such as hospitalizations, policing, prosecutions, and victims’ potential future earnings.
“It’s not the answer, but it’s a start,” Chico Tillmon, a veteran violence interrupter in Chicago, told reporters following the release of Biden’s bill. “And I believe it can help mitigate some of the root causes of violence that we often see daily in our most vulnerable, marginalized, and disinvested communities.”