For centuries, policies in the United States have perpetuated segregated cities, housing with unsafe and overcrowded conditions, inadequate public transportation, food deserts, and unhealthy air quality. Through policy and practice, we have excluded many from economic security without stable jobs that pay a living wage with benefits, including health care and paid leave. It is no secret that these policies and practices have negatively impacted communities of color, contributing to disparities in access to health care and disproportionate rates of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and kidney disease. It should be no surprise that data now starkly show that communities of color—particularly Black, Latinx, and Native communities—are tragically and disproportionately dying from the COVID-19 virus. Early data from across the country show disproportionate rates of deaths due to COVID-19 for Black people in Washington, D.C.; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; Cook County, Illinois; Louisiana; the Detroit metropolitan region; for American Indians of the Navajo Nation; and for the Latinx community in New York City.
As we come together as a nation to attack this pandemic, the question we must ask ourselves is whether we have the will to acknowledge and accept this discriminatory reality, aggressively address the problems that have been exposed, and to redesign policies and practices so that they undo entrenched racism and justly help everyone. If we do not, the racial and ethnic gap in outcomes for too many children, families, and communities, now and in the future, will continue to widen.
For many families, the short-term adjustments and solutions to maintaining employment and their children’s educational progress during the pandemic are not possible. Children can’t fully participate in all of the options for computer-based learning and enrichment if they don’t have access to computers or internet; parents with children in foster care can’t effectively visit with their children through digital meetings like Zoom or Skype or on their smart phones if they can’t access these options, don’t have sufficient internet access, or can’t afford a data plan or smart phone. Parents don’t have the luxury to practice social distancing if they must rely on public transportation to report to jobs that are considered essential. Neither can families doubled up in inadequate housing or living in shelters find ways to distance themselves from others. And families without health insurance and a reliable medical home cannot effectively treat the underlying health conditions that are putting them at such risk.
This pandemic has exposed the structural and systemic racism in this country and presents an imperative for tackling the root causes of the disparate outcomes in communities of color. We need different strategies: both immediate approaches targeted to quickly protect the populations most at risk and longer-term, systemic reforms and policies that account for disparities in access and outcomes for communities of color with a focus on reversing them.
Public systems and their community partners are currently adapting to help families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the solutions they are creating may have applicability beyond the current crisis—quickly setting up COVID-19 help lines in multiple languages; working with landlords to suspend evictions for unpaid rent; providing free meals to students with school buses delivering meals to specific housing complexes; conducting specific outreach to immigrant and refugee communities through trusted liaisons; and allowing for easier applications to important programs like Unemployment Insurance. Some public systems are rapidly experimenting with ways for families to access needed mental health services through telehealth, attending virtual court hearings, having frequent video visits when children are placed in foster care, and returning children home from congregate care settings earlier and with adequate community supports. These approaches are responding to communities in ways that increase accessibility and attempt to reduce barriers, and are critical for communities of color during this crisis. And if successful, they may provide ideas for longer term systemic solutions during and after our recovery.
Now is not the time to put racial equity and justice on the back burner. Rather, as policies are implemented to combat the societal effects of the virus, we must develop solutions that account for and remedy structural racism and are targeted to the people and communities in greatest need. We need longer-term relief and rebuilding strategies including, among other things, policies that permanently provide paid leave benefits when people get sick or need to care for their children or loved ones; health care reforms that expand eligibility and access; a child allowance that supports all families’ economic stability and gives every child a fair shot at success; expanded financial support and access to high-quality early care and education for all young children so they are prepared for and can succeed in school; policies that eliminate the inequities caused by the digital divide; and effective pathways to economic success for marginalized young adults and young families. Policies like these better support families during national crises by ensuring all have the financial support they need in the event of health emergencies and economic down turns, but also create avenues for families who have been historically excluded to care for their children, meet health care needs, and provide financial stability in better times. While these policies benefit everyone, they can and should be designed to structurally shift how we serve families in good times and bad—supporting the people who need help the most and addressing racial barriers that continue to restrict success for all Americans.
COVID-19 has laid bare the structural inequities impacting the health and well-being of too many of our nation’s families and children. The pandemic also provides a chance to use the recovery to move beyond problems to solutions so that we build a racially, socially, and economically just society where all children, youth, and families can thrive.