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To advance equity, score it like the budget

President Joe Biden speaks at POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, April 12, 2022.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
President Joe Biden speaks at POET Bioprocessing in Menlo, Iowa, on April 12, 2022. The Biden administration has released hundreds of strategies it’s taking or will take to boost equity across the federal government, the product of an executive order Biden signed.

It is often said that we measure what we value. Since 1974, we have assigned a high value to the price tag of new bills: The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation score legislation for their effects on our national budget. 

These scores matter for the public debate around a proposal, but they also matter for policy. For example, after CBO’s budget scoring projected that the Affordable Care Act would cost more than predicted, the bill was revised to lower payments to states and physicians and increase enrollee costs. If this bill had been scored for its implications for equity in health care access and potential for equitable health outcomes, its equity score may have prompted revisions to promote patient well-being. 

Of course, it matters that we measure legislative effects on our budget. But fiscal responsibility is not our only value. In this new era of racial reckoning, Congress should introduce a scoring system to measure how proposed bills might affect racial equity.

Measuring progress on racial equity is top of mind these days. On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order for fashioning the federal government as a “model” for advancing racial equity, calling for a “whole-of-government” approach to fulfill the mandate. Last month, more than 90 agencies publicly released Equity Action Plans detailing the steps they are taking to create equitable processes and achieve equitable outcomes.

But the legislative branch has no system for joining this unprecedented federal effort. Now is the moment to change that.

Over the past year, PolicyLink and the Urban Institute have collaborated on the Equity Scoring Initiative (ESI), a multi-year effort aimed at equipping legislators with the tools they need to systematically assess a bill’s potential benefits or consequences for racial, gender, and other forms of equity.

We define equity as the fair, just and impartial treatment — and equal access to opportunity — for all people, especially those who have been historically marginalized, and the 100 million people with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Equity scoring would pose a central question: How might a proposed bill, if implemented, benefit or harm all people and communities? Would it ameliorate the effects of systemic and structural inequities? And for whom would it affect wealth, health, housing, education, criminal justice and other aspects of well-being?

In our vision, equity scoring, like the CBO system for projecting costs, would be embedded in the federal legislative process where it can inform debate and ensure Congress considers how legislation would advance or impede equity. And, like fiscal scoring, the discipline’s methods and tools would improve over time.

Knowing the potential impact of available policy options matters to legislators. In addition, people affected by a bill need better information about likely consequences for them before the law is considered to make their voices heard when it matters. And scoring offers transparency to the tens of millions who live with the consequences of everyday policy decisions and bear the burdens of policies that prove inequitable.

Without a robust equity scoring system that uses the best data and evidence to project future outcomes, we cannot know how a proposed bill might affect different populations. But we do know the centuries-old pattern by which adopted legislation leaves people of color in a different place than their white counterparts.   

For example, the structure of Opportunity Zones, created through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to address market failure and deploy capital to community economic development, has disadvantaged minority-operated businesses, smaller and rural projects, and the types of projects that could deliver maximum community benefit, according to Urban Institute research. If this legislation had first been scored for racial equity, lawmakers could have strengthened key provisions to avert the disparate impacts.

But future policies could be guided by equity scoring.

In this new era of racial equity accountability, our initiative seeks to transform the policy landscape by positioning racial equity at the center of the legislative process. Building the capacity for a robust equity scoring system would codify the major shift the executive branch began and clarify the stakes of legislative policy proposals for diverse communities.

We believe now is the time for the legislative branch to join the federal pursuit of equity by building the legislative capacity to score bills. Now is the time for Congress to affirm the importance of measuring what we value.

Sarah Rosen Wartell is the president of the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization that provides data and evidence that inspire solutions to advance upward mobility and equity. Michael McAfee is the president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity.

Tags Affordable Care Act biden executive orders cbo score Congressional Budget Office Equity Agenda Joe Biden Politics of the United States racial equity

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