How We Got Here
As data continues to be collected on the impacts of COVID-19, headlines have drawn attention to the large disparities in rate of infection and health outcomes by racial groups. As mentioned in CSPP President Judith Meltzer's recent guest blog, not only are communities of color experiencing higher rates of infection, but the percentage of serious cases—including deaths—are staggering. In Milwaukee, Black residents represent 73% of COVID-19 related deaths, but only 26% of the population. This follows a similar trend in many other cities such as Chicago and states including Louisiana and North Carolina. Native populations are also at higher risk and predicted to face a much higher death rate, as predicted by H1N1 when native populations faced a mortality rate of four times higher than the average. It is important to recognize that reported numbers for COVID-19 are understated—they do not count people who may have been infected and did not get tested, possibly for the cost or lack of health insurance, or the constant fear of deportation—which likely means there may be greater disparity in racial groups than is already being reported.
This disparity is largely representative of the social and political environment that has formed over past centuries. From redlining and white flight in the 1930s that concentrated Black communities and other communities of color, to resulting food deserts that often require people to take public transportation to purchase food for their families, which lead to higher rates of obesity, heart and lung disease, and the racial wealth gap—COVID-19 seizes on these underlying conditions to hit low-income and communities of color the hardest.
Race Equity in the Time of a Pandemic
With the current state of the pandemic, and the inequities in inclusion of recent and ongoing legislation around economic benefits such as the stimulus package and other federal supplements, our country may likely come out of this pandemic with increased gaps in income and wealth, hunger and food insecurity, education levels, and heightened differences in child well-being and learning. So, how do we stop this trajectory? How do we provide for communities of color that not only have been hit hardest by infection and morbidity of this pandemic, but also economically as low-wage, frontline workers? How does APHSA pursue our Call to Action for race equity to advance well-being for all?
Although there isn't a simple answer, I think the first step we can take—especially for those working in health and human service agencies or advocacy and policy spaces—is to recognize and think about the root causes that have created a need for racial equity. Agencies and policy makers must be proactive in producing equitable policies, standards, and responses—ones that go beyond assuming a neutral platform to specifically address the needs for communities of color.
Looking Forward to Policy Conversations
As an Emerson Hunger Fellow, I frequently reflect on the need for hunger and nutrition support. Most people in the country have faced increased stress levels in regard to groceries—whether that be the fear of some: an inability to find baking powder or the lack of time slots available for grocery delivery, or the fear of others: lying awake wondering how they will possibly afford their next round of groceries, let alone stocking up for 14 days’ worth of food. This is a critical time for hunger, and it will continue to be as our country moves through the recovery process.
Many people that rely on SNAP and WIC to assist in purchasing food are unable to order online to comply with social distancing, which exacerbates existing inequities for communities that are already more vulnerable to COVID-19. As serious gaps in food access remain, especially in rural areas and tribal nations, there is opportunity and need to increase the maximum level of SNAP benefits during this pandemic. With current legislation, only households who were not receiving the maximum allowed benefit received increases in their monthly allotment, which primarily leaves out women with children and many people of color.
Additionally, the recent legislation around public charge has incited further fear in those without legal permanent status in the United States in utilizing any public benefits, even if they do not apply to the new rule—such as WIC, school meals, and more. As new programs roll out that are not a public charge, such as Pandemic EBT, there must be targeted outreach to clarify stigma around these programs.
Many of these supplemental nutrition programs, as well as unemployment insurance programs and stimulus checks, have restrictive eligibility criteria that exclude undocumented workers and legal permanent residents who have not met the required 5-year waiting period. Yet, we know that immigrant populations, primarily immigrants of color, are more likely to work low income jobs, and thus more likely to have been laid off and left without an income during this crisis. Furthermore, many agricultural workers who play a critical role in our food supply fall into this category. To attempt to reach these communities, California, for example, has announced direct cash support to undocumented immigrants of $500 for individuals, and up to $1,000 for households.
When businesses begin to reopen, people will need to find new jobs if they are unable to return to their last place of employment, which leads to a critical need for TANF and job training. As these programs grow, it will be essential for staff to be trained in racial equity, such as what Colorado has done in the past with their TANF support team. As many Black people and communities of color face systemic barriers to obtaining jobs, as well as explicit and implicit bias that impacts their likelihood to be offered a job in comparison to their white counterpart, it is essential that this be addressed to create more equitable opportunity in the labor market.
APHSA continues to work with our members to respond to our current health crisis while prioritizing the need to recognize the impacts on communities of color. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be seen for years, if not generations to come, if we do not work together to ensure proper and holistic recovery for everyone impacted. This means going above and beyond to ensure that policies and procedures are not only created, but implemented, through a race equity lens that aims to diminish disparities in our country so that we can all come out of this stronger together.