In 2020, United Way Worldwide and local United Ways across the U.S. activated the largest grassroots civic-engagement initiative in our recent history. Much was at stake. From the complex, pressing needs underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic, to the reinvigorated push for social justice, to the never-greater need for communities of color to be represented, our fight for every person in every community has never been more important.
United Way believes that civic engagement builds stronger communities. And we believe participating in civic activities contributes to the quality of life–for us as individuals and for our communities.
When we come together around shared purpose and collective action, we all benefit. United we fight, united we win.
As a 16-year-old high school student, B.J. Tillman founded “Your Voice, Your Vote” as a voter-mobilization effort in her home state of Georgia. Though too young to vote, she’s passionate about helping more people be heard. In an early November video interview with United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley President and CEO Ben Moser, she told viewers her team had already registered some 400 first-time voters, mostly young adults.
United Way Worldwide and hundreds of local United Ways took to the front lines of voter mobilization through our #UnitedWeVote campaign. We shared voter registration information through social media, newspapers and radio stations throughout the country, and helped people get answers about absentee ballots, polling places, and other factors in election participation.
United Way staff and volunteers organized voter-support events in seven cities. These early-voting events brought food, pandemic PPE, voter protection and music to citizens casting their early ballots in Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Orlando.
In every corner of the U.S., United Way encouraged local voters in their communities. “Civic engagement is at the core of what we do at United Way,” said Tim Garvin, president and CEO of United Way of Central Massachusetts. “We give people the opportunity to volunteer and contribute to our community. I challenge my friends to ‘Pass the Vote,’ ” he posted on his personal Facebook page.
In 2020, United Way connected more than 3,350 advocates with Congress, to speak out about policy priorities aligned with COVID-19 relief. That’s a whopping 265% increase in individual advocacy over the previous year, all around our Fight For America’s Recovery campaign. In addition to vigorous lobbying for multiple COVID relief bills from Congress, United Way helped:
- Secure full congressional funding last year for the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program. VITA extends free tax preparation and tax-credit counseling to people who lack access to professional tax services. Local United Ways make up 36% of the 2020 funding to operate VITA sites for their communities.
- Support free tax prep through 211, which connects people to local places that can help people connect to Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits–especially critical when every dollar counts during the pandemic.
- Expand free tax prep through VITA. “As the pandemic threatens the health and financial security of millions of American, VITA has innovated new and expanded services to help people avoid missing out on the tax credits and deductions they have earned,” Yvonne Zuidema, CEO of United Way of Passaic County, told a congressal committee recently.
- Boost funding of the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) program for food assistance by 15% for six months as part of COVID relief.
- Target nearly $16 billion as part of COVID relief and regular congressional funding for child care assistance for low-income parents who work or are in school.
- Provide $25 billion in emergency rental assistance to prevent evictions among low-income renters.
- Direct a $7 billion congressional investment for expansion of broadband access.
Also, more than 800 United Ways secured some $140 million Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to support operations during a critical time.
Our fight continues. While United Way advocacy has helped secure critical COVID relief, there is much more to do in 2021. United Way has laid out our policy agenda for this year, underscoring the additional help this country needs to build back from COVID.
"As we look to the first year of the 117th Congress and the new Administration, our focus at United Way continues to be on responding, recovering, reimagining, and rebuilding systems that help communities address the inequities in access to health care, education and economic opportunities,” said Suzanne McCormick, U.S. President, United Way Worldwide. “Together, as we advocate for the policy priorities in our 2021 Policy Agenda, we can bring the change needed to bring our nation together in a way that works for every person in every community.”
United Ways around the country continue COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, adapting in real time to ensure the most critical needs are addressed. Priorities include:
- Health Care: United Way believes all Americans must have health care coverage that is accessible and affordable. We'll continue to advocate for racial equity in health care, expansion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicaid and mental health supports.
- Fighting Hunger: Many low-income households continue to struggle to afford food. Protecting, strengthening, and increasing access to the nation's Child Nutrition Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) will continue to be a priority.
- Child Care: Now more than ever, affordable access to childcare is critical to the financial recovery of communities across the U.S. United Way will advocate for investments for providers to stay open or re-open during the pandemic and continue to work towards providing training, certification, and equitable compensation for childhood education workers.
- Digital Equity: COVID-19 has highlighted inequities in access to broadband and internet, along with the impact this has on education and other activities. United Way will support legislation to increase access to and affordability of broadband to bridge the digital divide.
- Financial Stability: United Way will continue to advocate for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), making the Child Tax Credit (CTC) fully available to the lowest income workers and families with children; funding the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at $30 million; and investing in the nation’s workforce development system.
- Housing Stability: COVID-19 and the resulting recession have increased the threat of displacement and homelessness. United Way will support extending eviction protections, providing emergency rental assistance, and increasing investments in the Emergency Food and Shelter Program.
- Strengthening Nonprofits: Because nonprofits play a crucial role in COVID-19 recovery (and we employ millions of Americans), Congress must include nonprofits in any legislation to provide COVID-19 relief. United Way will continue to advocate for additional funding for nonprofits to maintain their workforce; for expanding and extending charitable giving incentives; and legislation that would impact key issues for the nonprofit sector overall, such as payroll tax credits, unemployment insurance, and relief for nonprofits with over 500 employees.