The blog of the Urban Institute
May 12, 2021

State and Local Policymakers Could Look Abroad to Inform an Inclusive Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic

With the US beginning to turn the corner toward recovering from COVID-19 pandemic, our policymakers and communities have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase equity and inclusivity across all sectors of public life. The pandemic highlighted the structural racism that upholds our political and economic systems and has long disadvantaged Asian, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander people and communities in this country. From housing security to health care, food access to education, people of color have faced additional structural barriers to fulfilling their basic needs long before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated those inequities.

Serving on the frontlines of change, state and local policymakers must understand this history while navigating other global complexities, including climate change and political polarization, as they search for the right mix of policy responses to aid recovery. Local leaders in other countries are facing similar circumstances as they test new policies and programs. To understand how US local policymakers could best position their communities for a more inclusive recovery, an Urban Institute team is studying how innovative, effective solutions from abroad could inform recovery policy in the US.

Local governments can address 10 policy domains to ensure an equitable recovery

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments have needed to adjust to the evolving realities of its effects. Although federal policy and assistance will no doubt shape and influence COVID-19 recovery, state and local policymakers will also determine how their communities’ recovery can be planned and result in more inclusive, equitable outcomes.

Our study began with a landscape scan of the news, blogs, recent academic and research papers, and other sources to understand how communities have responded to the pandemic and to identify emerging policy priorities and common themes. We also conducted focus group discussions about inclusive recovery strategies with directors and staff of eight national organizations that represent and advocate on the behalf of state and local governments.

From the scan, we found that several local government associations and national nonprofits had aggregated innovative policies and programs at the local level, and a few organizations had surveyed their members to get the pulse of what was happening in their communities. From our focus group conversations, 10 policy domains emerged as necessary to address to build an equitable recovery. These domains included education, housing stability, city governance, the future of work, parks and recreation, climate and energy, local economic development, public health infrastructure, food systems and security, and broadband infrastructure and access.

Communities, cities, and counties across the United States have already been implementing policies and programs within these domains that address the pandemic’s impact on Americans’ lives. Some local governments have repurposed streets and public spaces for outdoor dining and recreational uses. Other local governments are reexamining the purpose of central business districts in a future with hybrid office workers and are considering repurposing now-empty buildings to address affordable housing shortages. 

Lessons from abroad could further inform how local governments can recover equitably

Our initial scan also found promising examples from abroad, where cities are making changes in these domains in response to the pandemic’s longer-term effects. Although policy and legal specifics differ in other countries, we can draw lessons from the similar approaches at local levels and analyze how local governments here might adapt these policies to their communities. Over the next several months, our team will analyze policies from abroad and will publish policy briefs covering five of the domains surfaced during our focus groups.

For recovery policies to be successful and dismantle the racial and economic disparities that preceded the pandemic, state and local policymakers should intentionally center inclusion and equity in their next steps. Through the recovery process, policymakers can address past and present structural inequities by adopting policies and programs that ensure everyone has access to education, technology, stable housing, quality jobs, and healthy communities.


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