The blog of the Urban Institute
April 14, 2021

How Can City and State Leaders Facilitate Inclusive Recovery after the Pandemic?

The economic, social, and health effects of COVID-19 are profound and far-reaching. For individuals and societies, this crisis has been called a defining moment, a turning point, and a once-in-a-generation challenge. For policymakers and the communities they serve, it has been an unprecedented trial; on top of the public health impact, COVID-19 has brought significant economic disruption, which has worsened inequality and created uncertainty for state and local government budgets.

As communities continue to struggle with COVID-19 and vaccine rollouts, leaders cannot lose sight planning for a long-term, equitable recovery. Focusing on an inclusive recovery will be critical to ensuring we don’t exacerbate the disparities already afflicting our country.

But what is an inclusive recovery? And how can public leaders push their policies to be more inclusive as we look toward a postpandemic future?

What is an inclusive recovery?

An inclusive recovery occurs when a city overcomes economic distress in a way that enables all residents—especially historically excluded populations—to benefit from and contribute to economic prosperity. Inclusive recovery doesn’t just happen—it requires deliberate policy actions that promote racial and economic inclusion across a range of issues. 

To realize an inclusive recovery from COVID-19, policies and programs must address underlying health and economic disparities and inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated. For instance, COVID-19 reminded us that civic infrastructure, like green space, can promote mental and physical health, but not everyone has access to quality parks. And COVID-19 has elevated the urgency of closing the digital divide in broadband access to ensure public participation in government decisionmaking, prevent further divergence in educational outcomes, and enable labor access to quality jobs.

Federal, state, and local policymakers all have a role

Research shows that to support an inclusive recovery, policies at all levels of government could pursue the following:

  1. Target those who faced the greatest inequities before the COVID-19 pandemic and those who face the greatest negative effects during the pandemic, which often (but not always) overlap. Households and people with low incomes—and particularly Black, Latinx, and Native communities—have disproportionately experienced the brunt of COVID-19, underscoring the need for a recovery that intentionally addresses systemic barriers and increases equitable access to opportunity. Targeting resources to these individuals and communities is the first step toward inclusive recovery policies. For recovery policies to be inclusive, they must address both the short-term effects of the crisis and the long-term institutional barriers that perpetuate inequities and impede upward economic mobility. Times of upheaval and distress, such as our current moment, offer an opportunity to dismantle the racist institutions that have plagued our country for centuries.
  2. Enhance equity by building on evidence of what works, and measure long-term outcomes. Many well-intentioned past policies have actually led to less-inclusive outcomes. For example, ban-the-box policies, which remove criminal record questions from job applications, have been shown to lead to increased discrimination against young men of color. Saying a policy centers inclusion, equity, and economic mobility without evidence to demonstrate it actually advances these priorities is insufficient. So policymakers could track and measure outcomes after a policy is implemented to ensure it is having the intended impact.
  3. Be informed by input from communities historically excluded from decisionmaking. Local community engagement processes can overrepresent higher-income homeowners, who are more likely to be white and not Hispanic. Dismantling decades of mistrust builtwith historically excluded communities, like communities of color and residents with low incomes, requires intentional effort on the part of decisionmakers at many levels of government. Investing time and resources in building this trust and engaging with these communities while planning and implementing policies will help ensure those policies do not unintentionally exacerbate inequity by giving voice solely to those already in positions of power and wealth.
  4. Build longer-term resilience. Policies that enhance a community’s adaptive resilience—or its capacity to change, adapt, and transform as circumstances change—can guide a sustainable recovery that also strengthens the community’s ability to recover from future crises. Regional resiliency, for example, is associated with adaptive, continuously evolving economic development strategies. But without considering equity impacts, a focus on resiliency and sustainability can inadvertently undermine inclusion (PDF). Evidence shows financial health is linked to broader community resilience and that structural barriers, like employment and housing discrimination, contribute to Black and Latinx families having less access to credit, wealth, and savings.

Using these principles to guide policy selection and design can help leaders build a more sustainable, inclusive, and effective recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This, in turn, will help build a stronger, more resilient economy and society to all residents’ benefit.


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Michelle Burnett sits with daughters Alayjah (left), 12, and Namarhianna, 9, at their home in Vallejo, Calif. on Thursday, April 23, 2020. Burnett was denied time off from her job to pick up a laptop from Namarhianna's school so she could participate in distance learning. Then the employer terminated Burnett because she asked for an explanation as to why she was denied the time off per the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. Burnett was told she fit one of the employer exemptions in the law. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

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