Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Economic recovery starts with a job guarantee, why workplace safety is key to coronavirus control, and cultural resilience in the pandemic era, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No. 19. August 19, 2020

Recovery Starts With a Job Guarantee
By Tracey Ross

This past week, hospitality workers across the country set up temporary food banks for fellow unemployed workers outside the offices of elected leaders who have refused to consider another coronavirus relief package, including Senators Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Martha McSally (R-AZ). The protests were an opportunity for workers not only to demand more of their senators, but also to provide a critical service for those in need. The actions demonstrated how unemployed workers are willing and able to step into roles that support their communities. 

Fortunately, there’s a way to ensure workers across the country can be hired to address pressing community needs while earning a living wage and full benefits: a federal job guarantee. 

“In recessions, social needs become more acute. We need extra helping hands for the food kitchens or the homeless shelters. It is the nature of the job guarantee that whenever there are more needs, there are more people to do them,” explained economist Pavlina Tcherneva, author of The Case for a Job Guarantee

A job guarantee is a public option for quality jobs that also enables communities to address immediate and long-neglected community needs such as infrastructure projects, environmental restoration, and even elder care. While the idea is not new, the current crisis has brought into sharp focus the need for — and the benefits of — such a program. 

As the pandemic began to surge in April, Yale professors Gregg Gonsalves and Amy Kapczynski called for a massive jobs program to minimize the health and economic impacts of Covid-19. “We know from the work of those who study the impact of job guarantees — including programs that have been running for many years in other countries — that such programs can be scaled up quickly, and provide essential counter-cyclical stability, as well as discipline the private labor market,” they explained. In their proposal, Gonsalves and Kapczynski described a world in which workers who lost jobs during the lockdown could be quickly trained and deployed to help the United States make it through the crisis, stabilizing households and communities.

“How much better would we have been in addressing [the pandemic] if we had the infrastructure in place? We would already be putting people on the front lines to be dispatchers, to take calls, to do wellness checkups for the elderly. Now we have to start from scratch,” explained Tcherneva.

Instead, the pandemic rages on, nearly 18 million people remain unemployed, and the Senate refuses to consider the HEROES Act, which the House passed over three months ago. We cannot afford to rely on time-bound legislative fixes that can be held up by politics every time there is an unexpected crisis. Nor can we afford to go back to life before the pandemic, when having a Black unemployment rate twice that of the White unemployment rate was considered normal. 

The current public health and economic crisis has revealed the truth about an economy that has long devalued workers and commodifies basic necessities, including health care, housing, and clean water. While the Senate needs to pass the HEROES Act, federal leaders must plan for the long road to recovery in ways that ensure we are stronger than we were before. 

“Only publicly funded jobs at massive scale [can] solve this big public problem,” Felicia Wong, the president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, explained

A job guarantee would not only help us through the current crisis, but also deliver the reforms that workers have demanded for decades. By creating quality jobs for anyone who wants one, it would force private employers to improve wages, benefits, and work conditions to compete for workers. This would increase the power of the 40 percent of workers who earn less than $15 per hour, and drastically reduce the number of the working poor. 

Further, a job guarantee is particularly significant for Black, Latinx, and Native American households who are routinely the “first ones fired, last ones hired” during economic shocks, and who face hiring discrimination and make up a disproportionate number of low-wage workers. 

Such ambitious jobs programs are nothing new. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration employed more than 8.5 million workers during the Great Depression. As a result of these jobs, there were 650,000 miles of new or improved roads along with 39,000 schools built, improved, or repaired; in addition there were 8,000 new or improved parks; 16,000 miles of water lines installed; and 1,500 nursery schools operated. Even 2,300 personal accounts of slavery were collected as part of this effort. 

Long before the current public health and economic crisis, the US economy was fragile. For decades, corporate CEOs have grown richer while worker pay has remained flat. And during the years since the Great Recession, job growth was primarily concentrated in low-wage work. At the same time, lawmakers have diligently chipped away at the social safety net, undermining its ability to keep people out of poverty. As a result, far too many people were already one job loss or emergency from falling deeper into economic insecurity. Then the pandemic hit. 

Imagine if we had an economy that was ready for this kind of disruption. A job guarantee is a multifaceted investment in people, communities, and the environment that will address immediate needs while ushering in a more equitable economy and creating benefits for generations. 

Tracey Ross is Director of Federal Policy and Narrative Change at PolicyLink.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

The White House assault on the US Postal Service is more than an effort to undermine democracy; it is also an attack on racial equity — and on Black unemployment, in particular. More than one in five of the more than 330,000 USPS workers are Black, and for decades the USPS has offered stable, decent-paying careers that have been hard to find elsewhere and are all but impossible to secure now, amid a historic economic downturn. Jacobin examines the importance of the USPS and public service employment generally to Black families. The USPS has been a conservative target for years, Truthout writes. After a public outcry over the latest moves to hobble service, the postmaster general announced Tuesday that changes would be suspended until after the election.

At least 65,000 mail-in ballots for primaries this year were rejected because they arrived late — only about 1 percent of the vote in most states but potentially a make-or-break difference in a close election, an NPR analysis finds. People who vote by mail for the first time — especially young, Black, and Latinx voters — are more likely to have their ballots rejected because of errors. America’s Lawyer host Mike Papantonio talks with journalist  Greg Palast about the safety of voting by mail during a pandemic that makes it risky to vote in person.

Nearly every city with a population of over 50,000 is facing a budget shortfall this year — and the federal refusal to help will result in drastic cuts in health services, education, and emergency response, along with the loss of more than four million jobs, Salon reports. Transit budgets are also on the chopping block, with low-income areas bearing the brunt and local leaders predicting a “death spiral” for public transportation systems without more federal aid, according to the New York Times.

The economic debacle may also trigger a new gentrification crisis in cities, one that would devastate historic Black commercial districts and other ethnic enclaves that fuel the urban vibrancy, identity, and prosperity, the Washington Post writes. In Los Angeles, for example, business and community leaders predict that months of shutdowns, job losses, and the recent Covid-19 surge will accelerate the displacement underway since the Great Recession in South LA, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights.

The state and municipal budget crisis, combined with the nation’s worst public health calamity in a century and the uprising for racial justice, has intensified the debate over government spending for public health versus police. Some 56,000 public health jobs have been lost over the past decade as funding has been diverted to law enforcement and other programs, says a recent report by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health. 

Portland, Maine, is the latest city to take a hard look at its own spending priorities: the police budget has increased by nearly 40 percent in 10 years, while investment in public health has fallen by more than 50 percent, the Portland Press Herald reports.

The “broken” US census poses another threat to health-related funding, three physicians write in the New England Journal of Medicine. Even before Covid-19, the chronically underfunded census undercounted disadvantaged groups. This year, when we need a complete, accurate census and equitable funding allocations more than ever, the undercount is likely to be worse, and the consequences will be with us throughout  the coming decade. 

One way to boost the economy and ensure that everyone gets a fair share is to task the Federal Reserve with addressing racial inequality, economist William M. Rodgers III writes. In The Conversation, he explains legislative proposals to make it the Fed’s mission to reduce Black unemployment, open up credit for Black Americans, and report discrimination. 

Adding to widespread economic distress and dislocation: millions of evictions loom with the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits and renter protections. The nation could experience the largest disruption to the housing market since the Great Depression, the New York Times reports

Nor have temporary anti-eviction measures that were put in place as states shut down spared all renters from being thrown out of their homes. More than 1,600 Californians are known to have been evicted since March through a loophole in the state eviction moratorium, and that’s probably a significant undercount, Cal Matters writes. Even as Los Angeles County is knocked by a wave of Covid-19 cases — and low-income areas with large Black and Brown populations take the hardest hit — the sheriff has started enforcing 1,000 backlogged eviction orders.

New data from the Louisiana Department of Health show that outside of congregate environments such as prisons and nursing homes, industrial settings are responsible for more Covid-19 outbreaks than anyplace else, including bars, restaurants, and stores. Making workplaces safer is key to controlling the spread of the coronavirus, but fear of retaliation — including getting fired — keeps many low-wage frontline workers in factories, hospitals, agricultural fields, and essential retail from voicing safety concerns, the Los Angeles Times reports. Those fears appear justified: since mid-March, the state’s Retaliation Complaint Investigation Unit has received more than 300 coronavirus-related claims and that’s likely “a fraction of the total claims out there,” a labor official told the newspaper.

More than 50,000 health-care and other essential workers in California have tested positive for the coronavirus — but nearly 21,000 of those cases could have been prevented if the state had stockpiled enough masks and personal protective gear, finds a new study by the UC Berkeley Labor Center. The state also would have saved $93 million weekly on unemployment claims. 

Grocery workers were hailed as heroes in the early months of the pandemic but now many across the country are in despair after seeing their hazard pay cut, shifts extended, and public gratitude turned to hostility, the Washington Post reports. The anguish is compounded by the lack of other employment options: supermarkets are a rare bright spot in the retail sector, which has lost more than 900,000 jobs to Covid-related closures and a plunge in consumer spending. 

Latinas make up nearly half of the coronavirus cases among pregnant women, accounting for the largest group by far, according to the Washington Post. A study in Philadelphia found the rate of virus exposure among Black and Latina women to be five times higher than among White and Asian women. The virus continues to take a shocking toll on Latinx people:  they accounted for 73 percent of new infections in June in Montgomery County, a suburb outside Washington, DC, though they make up only 20 percent of the population — a pattern repeated throughout the country.

Despite the pandemic’s staggering impact on Brown and Black people, the Trump administration is eliminating bedrock safeguards for clean water and air under the National Environmental Policy Act,  Rev. Ezra Tillman writes in the Lansing State Journal. The action will leave communities even more exposed to dangerous levels of pollution and further elevate the already unacceptable risk of Covid-19 complications and death and a long list of other diseases.

Cultural resilience — and radical imagination — have taken on new urgency and energy during the pandemic. The push to preserve Indigenous languages has gotten a boost, as demand swells for classes that have moved online during lockdowns, and activists seize the shift to digital as an opportunity to build national and international solidarity among Indigenous peoples, Slate reports. After one summer program at an Indian language institute moved to Zoom, 450 people enrolled — a startling jump from the typical enrollment of 60–65 for in-person workshops. 

Authors and artists are also demonstrating what a healthy, just future, free from policing and prisons, can look like, through visionary fiction and radical storytelling. Join Wakanda Dream Lab and PolicyLink on Monday, August 24 for a webinar exploring freedom dream stories, featuring contributors to the forthcoming anthology, Black Freedom Beyond Borders: Memories of Abolition Day.

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

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We hope you find the COVID-19 and Race Series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.