Urban Wire COVID-19 Racial Health Disparities Highlight Why We Need to Address Structural Racism
Kilolo Kijakazi
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New COVID-19 data have revealed an alarming trend: Black families face a much higher risk of contracting and dying from the virus. Residents of majority-Black counties have three times the rate of infection and almost six times the rate of deaths as residents of majority-white counties.

Public officials have focused on the underlying health issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, such as diabetes and hypertension, as contributors to the larger impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. But it is important to go further and examine the root cause of these racial disparities in underlying health conditions.

Research has shown that differences in access to high quality jobs and economic stability, quality education, health care services, and quality neighborhoods— the social determinants of health—contribute to racial inequities in health. Structural racism—the policies, programs, and institutional practices that facilitate the well-being of white families while creating barriers to the well-being of Black families—results in this unequal access to the health- and opportunity-promoting social determinants that drive the racial health inequities laid bare by COVID-19.

In 2019, Urban Institute researchers released a brief that examined policy options for eliminating structural racism in key aspects of Black families’ lives. These options could be considered as policymakers take steps to help the country recover and become more resilient, and they can reduce the racial disparities that COVID-19 has illuminated.


In the week ending March 28, 2020, nearly 6.9 million workers filed claims for unemployment, the highest number of claims on record, followed by 6.6 million claims in the week ending April 4. The Congressional Budget Office projects an unemployment rate exceeding 10 percent in the second quarter.

When stay-at-home orders start lifting and the economy picks back up, a critical part of economic recovery will be helping people without jobs. For workers unable to return to their previous jobs, and for those who were seeking employment before the pandemic, Congress could consider a federal job guarantee or a federal jobs program that ensures full employment.


The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided more than $13 billion to states (PDF) through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to respond to the immediate needs of K–12 public schools.

In addition to funds for an immediate response, Congress could consider solutions for recovery as children go back to school and for the long-term economic resilience that ensues when a society is well educated. One solution is to address racial disparities in school quality and educational outcomes by reforming the education finance system and giving the federal government greater responsibility for education finance and accountability.

The racial wealth gap

Black families typically have 10 cents for every dollar of wealth held by white families. This racial wealth gap has grown over time, and the Great Recession exacerbated this disparity; Black families lost a larger share of their wealth than white families (47.6 versus 26.2 percent). Given these lower levels of wealth, many Black families were not in the position to prepare for and respond to the pandemic, and they will have a harder time recovering.

During an economic shock, like the one caused by the coronavirus, families need a stock of wealth to help them deal with the disruptions caused by the pandemic and give them breathing room if they lose their jobs. For example, families who own their homes outright would not have to worry about paying their mortgage or rent if they lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus. And families who do not own their homes but have enough liquid assets can cover these expenses for a period of time in the absence of income while they look for new employment.

Tax subsidies already exist to promote wealth accumulation. But nearly 80 percent of such subsidies for home mortgage deductions and property taxes go to the wealthiest 20 percent of income earners. To further help low-wealth families recover from the pandemic, lawmakers could create a more equitable distribution of existing tax subsidies.

Steps should also be taken to build an economically resilient society. Wealth gives people the resilience to weather a crisis without succumbing financially. One bold solution has been offered by Darrick Hamilton, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Hamilton proposes that every newborn be given an endowment of up to $60,000, based on the wealth of their family. The federal government would hold the endowment until the child becomes a young adult, when they could then invest in an asset, such as higher education, a home, or a business.

COVID-19 has given us even more clarity about our society’s racial inequities. Now that our eyes are wide open, it is time to take steps to eliminate the structural racism that has produced these stark disparities.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Race and equity Health and health care
Tags COVID-19 Racial and ethnic disparities Social determinants of health Racial inequities in health Structural racism
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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