Train for the job
Among America’s many nonsensical tax exemptions is the one for employer-paid parking, which encourages workers to drive to work alone. No wonder 81 percent of them choose to do so.
A tax exemption for solo drivers penalizes transit riders, contributes to inequity and is flat-out bad for traffic, cities and the climate. This is why last year, Washington, D.C. enacted the Transportation Benefits Equity Amendment, which requires companies that subsidize employees who park at work to also subsidize those who do not.
Washington’s law gives non-car commuters a cash payout equal in value to the employee parking subsidy, which recipients can use to, say, pay for a transit pass instead. It’s modeled on a similar California law that successfully decreased solo driving to work by 17 percent and increased transit ridership by 50 percent. The system, according to employers, was “cheap, easy to manage and fair.” Even the state made out like a bandit, collecting $48 annually per employee who took the cash payout because the cash, unlike cheap parking, is taxable.
The stimulus money funneled to U.S. cities and states by the American Rescue Plan has inadvertently led to a flurry of engagement between government and citizens, as many political leaders have found themselves with sums of cash they rarely see, and have turned to residents directly to ask them how they think it should be spent.
Alexandria, Virginia has created a hotline and web portal that constituents can use to suggest how they would spend the $60 million the municipality received. Cities in California, Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia have created similar channels of communication, through which residents have called for funding for job training, housing and broadband internet. In Charleston, West Virginia, one mostly Black neighborhood wanted funding to fix its food desert problem. Now the city is discussing how to spend some of its $37 million on expanding a local food co-op to that community.
“Usually when we do something new, I like to look and see what other jurisdictions have done,” said one Alexandria official. “But we’re all going through this at the same time — we’re building the plane as we fly it.”
Of the pandemic’s many unexpected side effects, one that unfolded in India took many by surprise: a surge in child marriages. Last summer, as the lockdowns were eased, child marriages there increased by 17 percent as families rushed to marry off girls before a full reopening so they could keep the weddings small and inexpensive.
One of those girls was Priyanka Bairwa from the district of Karauli, Rajasthan. But rather than accede, Bairwa refused to be married off. When she threatened to run away, her parents agreed to drop the marriage and let her finish school instead.
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Now 18, Bairwa is the founder of Rajasthan Rising, an organization that helps girls in Karauli seek scholarships and avoid arranged marriages before they’ve graduated high school. The group holds informational sessions with girls in rural villages to make them aware of their constitutional rights, and lobbies state ministers to enact laws allowing girls to receive free education until they are at least 17. It has also organized protests outside the homes of families seeking to marry off their girls, which the group’s members say have stopped specific child marriages from occurring.
Today, Rajasthan Rising has grown from its original ten members to 1,200 strong. “Many villagers called us mad,” said Bairwa. “But we had a clear goal, to reach vulnerable girls in all 33 districts of the state and demand long-term change.”