By Richard E. Besser, The Hill, March 16, 2021
For much of the past year, most every American has been looking forward to the day when optimism can replace dread. With vaccination numbers climbing, COVID cases and deaths declining, the economy showing signs of healing and winter ending, many might feel that day has come. And while I am truly optimistic, my optimism is for the vision of what our nation could be, not for what it was before the pandemic or what it is now.
A large swath of the country received a dose of good news last week with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, a bold and historic injection of support and hope for more than 100 million people. Many of these households have been devastated during this pandemic and economic collapse, but a significant number have been underserved by our government for generations. Certain provisions of the legislation will together reduce the U.S. poverty rate by more than one-third in 2021, according to a new Urban Institute report that was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The report projects a 50 percent decline in the child poverty rate and even higher poverty rate declines among families that lost jobs during the pandemic. The implementation of this law provides one more pillar of hope that better days are ahead.
Yet even as we rightly praise this ambitious legislative accomplishment, if we believe in an America in which everyone has opportunity and every person has equal value, our work is far from complete. The legislation is short-term progress, not a panacea. None of the provisions that will collectively improve the nation’s poverty rate in 2021 per the Urban Institute report extend past this year. The extension of pandemic-related unemployment insurance benefits expires Sept. 6; the extension of higher Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the program that provides food assistance for lower income households, expires Sept. 30; the $1,400 recovery stimulus payments is a one-time benefit and the advance portion of the increased child tax credit is for this year only.
Congress must next begin to create the pathway to making permanent policy changes that build on what will be short-term gains. Universal health care coverage, a long-overdue increase in the federal minimum wage, paid leave policies and improved access to safe, affordable and equitable housing are just a few areas — of many — where progress is needed.
Even if the pandemic were to end this year, the people for whom the legislation’s provisions are a lifeline still will be living in a nation that for its entire history has steeped in inequities that cannot be eliminated with a single act of Congress, no matter how vast. A closer look at the February unemployment report sheds more light on a single sliver of how this plays out by race, ethnicity and gender.
The topline numbers — a net increase of 379,000 jobs and an unemployment rate holding steady at 6.2 percent — are promising. Yet the United States remains down nearly 10 million jobs compared with the start of the pandemic, while unemployment rates for Blacks (9.9 percent) and Hispanics (8.5 percent) are considerably higher than whites (5.5 percent). The numbers for Black and Hispanic women are even more sobering, with trend lines suggesting a longer road to recovery. It is no coincidence that the health disparities of this pandemic track with the economic disparities. Despair has struck every community, but the highest concentrations of death and suffering has been borne by Black and brown populations, where life expectancies have declined at two to three times the decline among white Americans.
The vaccination rollout itself is a mirror of today’s America. As tens of millions of people get vaccinated, we are seeing some people celebrate the joyful return to their pre-pandemic lives. Grandparents who are vaccinated are able to hug their grandchildren and vaccinated friends can gather in small groups. The comfort and relief this is bringing is immeasurable, but who is benefiting the most? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that of those who have received at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19, 65 percent are White, compared with 9 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Black, 5 percent Asian and 2 percent American Indian or Alaska Native. In other words, those who have suffered the most during this pandemic have received a smaller proportion of the vaccines and will have to wait the longest to safely see and hold their loved ones. Our government must do more to make it as easy as possible for anyone who wants to get vaccinated to do so, and we must address the concerns of people who are on the fence about getting a shot.
President Biden has directed states to make vaccines available to all adults by May 1. To meet that deadline without compromising equity, states need to continue to increase efforts to make vaccination as easy as possible, particularly for frontline workers who are at a higher risk of exposure, and for people who are at highest risk of death if infected. Recently, a more intentional effort to bring vaccines to the hardest-hit communities is paying off with increasing vaccination access. The federal government should take it one step further by requiring states to make sure that vaccination data is collected by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, occupation and neighborhood. This is the only way we can understand the gaps that need to be addressed to improve access. The additional vaccine funding in the new relief bill will help.
Unless we confront inequities as a moral imperative — from education to health care access to employment opportunities and most every facet of our society — the United States will continue to be a place where a person’s ability to live the healthiest life possible and thrive will be heavily influenced by skin color, income and neighborhood. This year, thanks to the relief bill, we will see the health and economic benefits from lifting people out of poverty, reducing hunger and ensuring more people have safe, affordable housing. But if these gains are only realized for one year, we will simply be perpetuating the cycle of poverty that has festered for generations. Making these gains permanent will require a steadfast commitment and additional investments that will be the work of not just this Congress and administration, but subsequent ones.
We should yearn for the day when optimism is a shared American experience, not one closely yoked to privilege and circumstance — but we must recognize that day has not yet arrived. The American Rescue Plan Act is a good start, but the real work toward equity is only just beginning.