In the pursuit of building a more just, equitable, and inclusive South, EPU remains committed to building a coalition of leaders adopting new practices and sharing lessons, and building the capacity of our leaders across sectors to advance equity in their fields. Our work  also includes supporting policy change by providing valuable frameworks and tools so that a clear roadmap for change can be implemented among a variety of policymakers. Grounded in the belief that progress begins with targeted and strategic action, we are pleased to present our 2024 Policy Principles and Priorities, designed to guide our policy and government relations efforts during 2024 legislative sessions across the South. These principles and priorities mark a significant step towards refining our focus on key areas that demand urgent attention, allowing us to make a more profound impact on moving the needle on equity in the South.

As we navigated and monitored the complex legislative landscape in the South over the last two years, we recognized the importance of specificity in our approach.  In response to the evolving needs of our region, we have honed in on nine critical pillars that form the foundation of our policy efforts: climate and environment, the criminal legal system, democracy and voting, economic equity, education, health, housing, immigration, and infrastructure.

By narrowing our focus to these essential areas and their respective principles, we aim to maximize our effectiveness in addressing the systemic challenges that disproportionately impact marginalized populations in the South.

We hope that these policy principles and priorities serve as a guide for policymakers, stakeholders, and the public at large by outlining our organization’s stance on crucial issues and offering a blueprint for creating meaningful and lasting change. As we delve into the intricacies of each policy principle, our commitment to transparency, justice, and inclusivity remains unwavering. We invite all those dedicated to advancing equity in the South to join us in this transformative journey where focused principles pave the way for a more equitable and compassionate future.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be updating these policy principles and priorities to include the bills that we’re tracking across the Southern legislatures as they move through their 2024 legislative sessions.



OUR PRIORITIES

Climate & Environment: The Southern region of the United States is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, both in geography and demography. Advancing equity in climate and environmental policy in the South requires a holistic approach that addresses the unique climate, environmental, and societal challenges faced by the region. 

  • ACCESS TO CLEAN RESOURCES: Ensure equitable access to natural resources, such as clean water and clean air. 
  • CLEAN JOB CREATION: Create clean jobs and job training programs in renewable energy, conservation, and sustainable agriculture to stimulate economic growth while addressing climate challenges.
  • CLIMATE AFFORDABILITY: Promote affordable access to clean and renewable energy sources.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: Acknowledge and address historical injustices and environmental racism through reparative policies.

Criminal Legal System:  Historically, the South has taken a relatively more severe approach to criminal justice than other regions of the United States. Additionally, 6 out of the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates are located in the South (Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky). Moreover, it is important to note that roughly 55% of the Black population of the United States lives in the south and southeast regions of the country. Taking all of this into consideration, it becomes evident that advancing equity in the criminal legal system in the South is crucial for promoting justice and reducing disparities. 

  • CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: Promote comprehensive criminal justice reform, including changes to sentencing laws, bail practices, and the use of non-violent alternatives to incarceration.
  • DECRIMINALIZATION: Consider decriminalization of certain non-violent offenses and instead focus on harm reduction and public health approaches.
  • JUVENILE JUSTICE: Reform the juvenile justice system to prioritize rehabilitation and support for youth, including alternatives to detention and age-appropriate sentencing.
  • MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT: Divert individuals with mental health issues away from the criminal legal system and toward more appropriate mental health services and support.

Please see our Criminal Legal System Policy Priority Briefs

Democracy & Voting: Now more than ever, our democracy must be both protected and strengthened to preserve our freedom. It is imperative to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the political process so that our country can work for all of the people, not just some of the people. Our framework of government must be one where we can learn to live and work together despite our differences, 

  • EXPANDING VOTING ACCESS: Expand early voting periods and access to mail-in ballots to accommodate diverse schedules and individual needs, especially for marginalized communities.
  • RE-ENFRANCHISEMENT: Automatically restore voting rights to individuals with felony convictions upon completion of their sentences, eliminating lifetime disenfranchisement.
  • VOTER REGISTRATION: Simplify voter registration processes, including online and automatic registration.
  • VOTING RIGHTS: Strengthen and enforce laws that protect the voting rights of all citizens, including those historically marginalized by addressing voter suppression and discriminatory practices.

Please see our Democracy & Voting Policy Priority Briefs

Economic Equity: Poverty rates in Southern states are above the national average, with recent reports indicating that 7 out of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates are located in the South (West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas). Advancing economic equity in the South requires addressing systemic barriers and creating opportunities for all residents to thrive and contribute to the region’s prosperity. 

  • COMMUNITY REINVESTMENT: Prioritize targeted public and private investments in economically disadvantaged communities in the South to stimulate economic growth and job creation.
  • LIVING WAGE: Implement a living wage that reflects the cost of living in different regions of the South to ensure that all workers can meet their basic needs.
  • SUPPLEMENTAL SUPPORT: Implement targeted tax policies that benefit low-income individuals and communities, such as earned income and child care tax credits.
  • WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT: Invest in workforce development programs that provide skills training, education, and job placement services.

Please see our Economic Equity Policy Priority Briefs

Education: In our very recent history, racial segregation in schools has perpetuated social inequality, with Black students facing inferior facilities, resources, and educational opportunities. Despite legal strides towards desegregation, the legacy of racism continues to impact the education system in the South, influencing disparities in academic achievement and access to quality schooling. At the same time, there are many that are seeking to cover up or rewrite this history and prevent it from being taught in a factual and complete way. Advancing education equity in the South is crucial for ensuring that all students have access to quality educational opportunities, increasing their likelihood to be productive and contributing citizens with a complete understanding of the history of their country, even its darkest moments. 

  • CAREER & COLLEGE PREP: Expand access to college and career readiness programs, including advanced placement courses and vocational training, in all schools.
  • CURRICULUM: Ensure that curricula are factual, culturally relevant, inclusive, and free from bias, reflecting the diversity of students and their communities.
  • EQUITABLE SCHOOL FUNDING: Implement fair and equitable school funding that ensures adequate resources for schools in economically disadvantaged communities, reducing funding disparities.
  • STUDENT WELLBEING: Increase access to mental health services and counseling in schools to support the emotional well-being of students while also providing professional development and training for educators on culturally responsive teaching practices and anti-bias education.

Health: Disparities in health across the South persist, marked by a higher prevalence of chronic conditions and poorer health outcomes compared to other regions. These disparities are further exacerbated along racial and ethnic lines, with marginalized communities facing disproportionately limited or unaffordable access to quality healthcare. Additionally, as options for choice have been limited in recent years, many pregnant people and the children they later birth need additional options to ensure safe and healthy pregnancies and births. Advancing health equity in the South is essential to bridging the gaps and fostering a more inclusive and healthier society. 

  • AFFORDABLE HEALTH CARE: Ensure affordable health care options to not only promote preventative measures and early intervention but to also mitigate the financial burden on individuals and families. 
  • HEALTH LITERACY: Implement health literacy programs to empower individuals with the knowledge and skills to make informed healthcare decisions.
  • HEALTHY OPTIONS: Increase access to healthy and affordable food options, particularly in food deserts.
  • MATERNAL & PEDIATRIC HEALTH: Address disparities in maternal mortality rates, particularly for Black women, by investing in maternal healthcare and support services, and ensure access to prenatal care, postpartum support, and pediatric healthcare to foster a foundation for healthier communities.

Please see our Health Policy Priority Briefs

Housing: Housing provides not only a basic need of shelter, but contributes to the overall wellbeing of individuals and families, especially when that shelter is safe, decent, and affordable. Too often, many are left to make tough choices related to their ability to meet their needs as housing options have become unaffordable and unsustainable. Advancing equity in housing in the South is crucial for ensuring that all individuals have access to safe, affordable, and energy-efficient housing, allowing them to spend more time and resources on other important needs. 

  • AFFORDABLE DEVELOPMENT: Increase public and private investments in affordable housing development to expand the availability of affordable housing.
  • ENERGY EFFICIENCY: Promote energy efficiency upgrades in affordable housing units and/or for low-to moderate income families to reduce utility costs while improving environmental sustainability.
  • HOUSING FINANCE: Provide financial assistance, down payment assistance, and low-interest loans to help low-to-moderate income families become homeowners.
  • HOUSING STABILIZATION: Implement initiatives that prioritize providing stable housing to unhoused individuals and offering support services to address underlying issues.

Immigration: Advancing equity in policies related to immigrants living in the South requires a comprehensive and inclusive approach that recognizes the contributions of the immigrant community and addresses their unique needs. 

  • FAIR LABOR: Enforce labor laws to protect immigrant workers from exploitation and wage theft and provide avenues for reporting workplace abuses.
  • IMMIGRANT ACCESS TO EDUCATION: Guarantee access to education for children of immigrant families, regardless of their immigration status.
  • IMMIGRANT ACCESS TO HEALTHCARE: Ensure that immigrants, regardless of status, have access to healthcare services, including preventative care and emergency medical treatment.
  • IMMIGRANT INTEGRATION: Fund programs that support immigrant integration, including language classes, workforce development, and civic engagement initiatives.

 Infrastructure: Infrastructure construction and maintenance have played a role in perpetuating inequality and segregation. Safe and reliable infrastructure can have exponential effects on wellbeing and opportunity for a community. Advancing equity in infrastructure policies in the South is critical for ensuring that all communities benefit from essential public investments. 

  • CLEAN & GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE: Retrofit existing infrastructure for energy efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy sources in new projects. 
  • INFRASTRUCTURE REINVESTMENT: Allocate infrastructure funding in a way that prioritizes historically marginalized communities, addressing disparities in access to transportation, utilities, and public facilities.
  • RURAL INFRASTRUCTURE: Invest in rural infrastructure, including broadband internet, transportation, and healthcare facilities, to bridge the urban-rural divide.
  • SUSTAINABLE INFRASTRUCTURE: Promote sustainable infrastructure practices that reduce the environmental impact of projects, create green jobs, and enhance community resilience.