Commentary

How we get through the pandemic and rebuild for a better future

January 26, 2021 12:01 am

The temporary General Assembly Building, seen from Capitol Square. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Ashley C. Kenneth

We’re all looking forward to a time when the pandemic has been subdued and we can safely return to our normal lives and even look toward a better future.

Unfortunately, after such a prolonged period of disruption and pain, many people will struggle just to get back to baseline because they don’t have jobs awaiting their return or may be facing months of past-due rent. And more than 1 in 8 Virginia adults living in a household with children report that “the children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” Policymakers are taking some good steps to help people get through this tough time, yet much more must be done to set Virginia on a course where every community can rebuild for a better tomorrow.

As Virginia and the country endure a very difficult winter in terms of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, economic pain is also real and widespread. While some have been able to continue working safely from home, for many people that is not the case — 180,000 fewer Virginians were working in November 2020 than in November 2019. Nationally, the share of Asian American, Black, and Latino/Hispanic adults who have jobs dropped more than 4 percentage points, compared to a 3.4 percentage point drop for non-Hispanic White adults.

That difference amounts to over a million additional American adults without jobs. Black-owned businesses were more likely to close at the start of the pandemic, in part because of proximity to COVID-19 hotspots and in part due to lack of access to Paycheck Protection Program and bank loans to get through the hard times. More recent analysis by the Washington Post has shown few large PPP loans went to businesses located in areas with high concentrations of residents of color, while many went to large corporations. Meanwhile, more than a million Americans are still waiting for unemployment insurance.

Virginia is doing some good things to help address these challenges. Putting more money into the rent and mortgage relief fund and streamlining program administration should help more people access resources to avoid eviction or foreclosure. Removing some immigration-related barriers to health insurance, as was approved over the summer, will provide much-needed access to health care.

Preventing reductions in state support to K-12 schools during this and next school year, as proposed in the governor’s budget, will help provide job stability for the hard-working teachers and staff at those schools, and reduce the chance of long-term harm to the quality of public education from loss of experienced staff. Using CARES Act funds for hazard pay for home health care workers will provide some compensation for the risks these workers who are paid low wages have taken to care for the most vulnerable. And grant funds for small businesses and nonprofits will reduce the number that are forced to permanently shut their doors.

Yet there is opportunity to do more to address the current economic challenges and build a more equitable future. There are people working frontline essential jobs such as childcare workers who have not received any hazard pay. State legislators should act to provide hazard pay for childcare workers, especially those who primarily serve families who get help from the state to pay for the cost of childcare. It is their important work that has allowed other essential workers to continue their jobs during these difficult times.

More broadly, there are hundreds of thousands of Virginians without access to unemployment insurance because of their immigration status or type of prior employment. Some local governments in Virginia, as well as other states and the District of Columbia, are using partnerships with community organizations to provide some help. Virginia could do the same with state dollars, either directly in partnership with community organizations or through grants to city and county governments.

Beyond the immediate challenges, there is also an opportunity to rebuild for a more equitable future. Too many Black-owned and immigrant-owned businesses lacked the relationships with banking institutions needed to get access to PPP loans and get through the pandemic. Legislators should consider targeted funding for minority-owned businesses to get started or restarted. Farmworkers and temporary foreign workers who have kept food on the table at risk to their own health should, at long last, be included in the protections of the Virginia minimum wage statute. Home health care workers, grocery workers, meatpackers, school support staff, and other frontline essential workers should see a permanent raise in their wages through legislators continuing Virginia on a path to a $15 minimum wage.

And putting in place guaranteed paid sick leave and a paid family and medical leave program could help during the next public health emergency so that people don’t have to choose between going to work sick or losing their home.

At this time of great challenges for families and communities, legislators should use available resources — including money that is freed up due to the latest federal relief package — to meet these challenges. Families and communities need help now, and the state legislature must continue to do its part as soon as possible.

Ashley C. Kenneth is senior vice president at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond nonprofit that conducts analyses of fiscal and economic issues with a focus on low- and moderate-income people.

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