As the coronavirus continues to surge in communities across the US, we are all suffering—from illness, death, and the loss of loved ones; from isolation and uncertainty; from the cancellation of school, family celebrations, and social interactions; from lost jobs and income. But growing evidence shows the pandemic is disproportionately hurting Black and Latinx people.
We’ve been using the US Census Bureau’s weekly Pulse Survey to track inequities in measures of hardship, and the latest data show high (and increasing) rates of hardship in four critical metrics:
- lost employment income
- food insufficiency
- worries about upcoming rent
- worries about upcoming mortgage payments
All four of these hardship metrics have consistently been higher among Black and Latinx people than among white people. And, although the data aren’t definitive, it appears these inequities may be widening as the weeks go by.
The course of the pandemic and its economic fallout vary widely by state and locality, but racial inequities prevail regardless. We looked at six very different metropolitan areas, representing diverse health, economic, and policy environments. The data are murkier at this level because the census sample sizes are smaller. But Black and Latinx people consistently face higher rates of lost employment income than white people, and inequities in food and housing insecurity follow suit.
A next wave of federal aid is essential to preventing overall levels of hardship and racial inequities from worsening. But local and state policymakers, many of whom have already exercised admirable leadership in tackling the pandemic, can and should play central roles.
It’s not enough to put “universal” remedies in place and assume the hardest-hit groups will benefit fully. A rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats, and trickle-down theory won’t suffice. In fact, some remedies may inadvertently widen inequities by failing to confront patterns and systems that disadvantage people of color.
Here are five actions local leaders can and should take to address the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on Black and Latinx people, regardless of the next federal aid package.
1. Dig into the data
In today’s fast-changing conditions, no single data source can provide a complete, reliable, real-time picture of the pandemic’s consequences at the local level. For example, the Census Pulse survey we use to track inequities at state and metro levels sometimes shows puzzling jumps and dips.
Local leaders should use sources such as the Household Pulse survey and the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker as a starting point, supplementing them with local data and community insight, and digging deeper to assess the reliability and meaning of the trends and inequities they suggest. For example, a community might explore data on 211 help-line calls by zip code to better understand the types of requests coming from Black and Latinx communities.
2. Deliver help to the neighborhoods where people with the greatest needs live
Our country’s long history of housing segregation and discrimination means many people of color live in neighborhoods that lack critical resources and are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19’s health and economic fallout.
When it comes to food insecurity, many of the highest-need neighborhoods didn’t have access to food pantries and other assistance with basic needs even before the coronavirus hit. The pandemic laid bare these gaps in service at the same time that the few food pantries serving these communities were shutting down because of COVID-19. Some local organizations, like one in Nashville, moved quickly to map hard-hit neighborhoods against resources being deployed to get food to families and ensure the location of distribution points didn’t exacerbate preexisting disparities.
3. Ensure help is accessible for everybody who needs it
The eligibility requirements for some kinds of assistance may lock out important groups of people with urgent needs. For example, households that include noncitizens have been excluded from many federal assistance efforts, including stimulus checks, the boost in unemployment compensation, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Local communities have stepped in to help fill these gaps by raising funds to provide cash grants, gift cards to local grocery stores, and resources to immigrant-serving organizations. California created a state disaster relief program specifically designed to reach these households. But even when immigrants are eligible for benefits or legal protections, they may face barriers to access. Local leaders should ensure their outreach explicitly includes immigrant communities and doesn’t lock out these families.
4. Face up to discrimination in program delivery systems
Racism has shaped the design and implementation of many public policies, contributing to inequities and injustices that prevailed long before COVID-19. Today’s relief and recovery efforts can easily fall in line with past patterns and practices unless policymakers recognize them and work to change them.
For example, a subsidized employment program—potentially financed by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency funding—could narrow racial gaps because people of color are most likely to experience job losses and because they face discrimination in the labor market. But research documents racial bias in TANF policymaking and implementation at state and local levels, increasing the possibility that policy decisions and implementation of subsidized employment programs could impose racial bias that would undermine access and benefits to Black and Latinx people.
5. Serve the whole person or whole family
When people experience economic insecurity and hardship, the effects ripple across multiple aspects of their life: work, health, food, child care, and housing. And people of color are likely to face structural barriers and pitfalls as they struggle to overcome these challenges. Programs that offer help in only one domain may help a person overcome one barrier only to be set back by another. Local leaders committed to combatting racial inequities should take a whole person or family approach to developing and implementing programs.
From a housing insecurity and stability prospective, the homelessness ecosystem model offers a good model for replication. In Los Angeles County, for example, the successful Housing for Health program aims to reduce homelessness and improve health outcomes among vulnerable populations by linking permanent supportive housing with integrated case management. The program provides housing first but also addresses the underlying issues that created the housing insecurity or stability issue.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing racial inequities and injustices in our systems of work, housing, neighborhoods, health care, and education. Policies that deliver universal help are essential, but they aren’t sufficient to remedy widening inequities in suffering. Equity-minded leaders can and should make the most of disaggregated data, ask hard questions, and reverse prevailing racist patterns and practices to ensure relief and recovery policies reach the people who need help