Pandemic Policy Interventions for an Equitable Economic Recovery

Cassandra Robertson, PhD
October 2020

 

The purpose of this report is to highlight economic policies that will provide relief during this crisis while moving America towards an equitable economic recovery. Marginalized demographic groups are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. The policy response must therefore include policies that specifically address the needs of those groups. Without an agenda that builds a truly shared recovery, an economy that is inclusive and just will remain beyond our reach. Centering these marginalized groups is not only a moral imperative, but also crucial for the economy overall. A thriving economy that provides opportunity for everyone will be more resilient and dynamic: addressing inequity today will build a stronger economy tomorrow. 

 

To learn more about economic policies that will lead to an equitable recovery, click any policy on the far left column of the table. Click on each demographic group at the top of the table to learn about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic and recession. To read about how policy interventions would affect different groups, click on any intersecting dot. Download the full report here.

Black Women

Black women are being disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus pandemic. From an economic perspective, they are most likely to be in industries decimated by the virus, are less likely to have a financial cushion, and are more likely to experience dire health impacts from the virus itself. 

 

54% of Black women reported losing income or being laid off since the beginning of the pandemic, the highest of any demographic group, and 16.1% are now unemployed. Only 34% of Black women reported that they had enough money for less than one month if they lost their job, the highest number of any demographic, demonstrating the impact of the racial wealth gap on precarity during this time. Black women are overrepresented in the service industry, as almost a third of Black women work in service jobs, compared to a fifth of white women. This is one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, and also most likely to have the lowest wages. Black workers are less likely to be able to work from home, are less likely to have health coverage, and are more likely to be in jobs deemed “essential.” 

 

From a health perspective, Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans. Although not all states are compiling data, and data by gender remain unavailable, overall, Black Americans are dying at a rate 2.6 times greater than their white counterparts. APM estimates that if death rates were equal, at least 10,000 more Black Americans would be alive today. These stark statistics are a result of decades of policies that reinforce economy inequality. Black Americans are also more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, and asthma, which render an individual more susceptible to COVID-19. These conditions are also the result of structural racism that results in  Black Americans being more likely to live in environmentally toxic areas, food deserts, and substandard housing.

Essential Workers

Essential workers are those unable to work from home, who still need to go to work everyday to ensure the basic functions of society continue. They are cashiers, bus drivers, postal workers, nurses, and janitors. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 64.4% are women, 41.2% are people of color, 9.9% have no health insurance, and 30.2% live below 200% of the poverty line (less than $13 an hour). One in three essential workers is over the age of 50, and 35.9% have a minor child in the home. These are individuals who are risking their lives on a daily basis.

Latinx Americans

59% of Latinx workers live in households with family members who have had their pay cut or lost their jobs due to the pandemic. This is the highest of any group, and largely due to the overrepresentation of Latinx workers in business sectors that have experienced mass layoffs like hospitality and health services. Workers in these industries are also the least likely to be able to work from home, putting more workers at risk of contracting the virus. Women have been particularly hard hit: the unemployment rate for this group jumped from 5.5% before the pandemic to a high of over 20.5% in April. 

Low-Wage Workers

Low-wage workers have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The majority of jobs lost thus far in the recession have been low-wage jobs. These jobs might also take a particularly long time to return, given that many are in the service industry. Furthermore, most of these workers have less than a college education, making it potentially more difficult to find new full-time employment. 

 

Before the crisis, this population was already financially vulnerable. Half of those individuals who had an income below 150% of the poverty line had less than $500 to use in an emergency. 57% of these workers are under the age of 34, making losses in income and job history particularly dire. Many of these workers were uninsured or underinsured before the pandemic, and those lucky enough to receive employer sponsored insurance are now also at risk of losing their insurance. Over one third of low-wage workers before the pandemic reported being worried about paying monthly bills, and many were also food-insecure and rent-burdened. Overall, it is clear that these workers need public policy to help them through this crisis.

Native Americans

Before the pandemic, 33.8% of Native children were living in poverty, over 50% of Native households were rent burdened, and one-in-four households experienced food insecurity. Tribal governments are now worried they will not be able to provide education services for their children due to the closure of casinos, which they estimate have lost tribal governments at least $18 billion in revenue.  

 

From a health perspective, Native Americans are more likely to have pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to poor outcomes following infection. For example, Native Americans have the highest rates of asthma and diabetes of any ethnic group, which puts Native Americans at a much higher risk for negative outcomes due to COVID-18. The Indian Health Services, which provides healthcare to Native American populations, is chronically underfunded and will be stretched in response to the pandemic.

 

There is very little data on the impact of COVID-19 on Native American communities because most states are not reporting it. However, the data that does exist indicates that the crisis is hitting Native communities particularly hard. For example, Navajo Nation, which spans Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, reported a higher per capita rate of infection than any U.S. state. Though Native Americans are only 10% of the population in New Mexico, they accounted for over one third of coronavirus cases in the state.

Women

Women are at a higher risk of economic disruption due to the coronavirus. Women make up two-thirds of the low-wage workforce. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 83% of the jobs lost in education and health services, and 61% of retail jobs losses. Women hold 60% of all service jobs in the U.S. and hold 58% of public-sector jobs, two industries threatened by the pandemic. 55% of the people who have lost jobs since the beginning of the pandemic are women.  For those women who were still employed, they were more likely than men to say that care responsibilities had lowered their hours worked. As classrooms move from schools to the home, women’s caregiving has increased and the “second shift” has become even longer.

Automatic Medicare Enrollment

The first and most crucial policy intervention during a pandemic is to ensure that all Americans have access to health care. Cost should never be a barrier to care and the health of the community rests on the ability of the individual to be treated. However, the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction, as 45 million people are now on track to lose their health insurance, in addition to the 87 million who were already uninsured and underinsured

 

The situation is particularly dire in states that have not chosen to expand Medicaid. Up to 40% of people who lose their coverage in states that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), compared to less than 25% in ACA expansion states. 

 

To protect both individual and community health during this time, anyone who wants to enroll in Medicare should be able to do so. In line with the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act introduced by Senator Sanders and Representative Jayapal, Medicare should be open to anyone who is uninsured or underinsured. This would allow the federal government to shoulder the cost of healthcare through the pandemic, which is preferable to expanding Medicaid given that states are already under intense fiscal stress

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Automatic Medicare enrollment would be one step to remedying the gap in access to healthcare by race. Nearly 14% of Black women are uninsured, and Black women in the South, where states were less likely to expand Medicaid, have lower rates of health insurance coverage. For example, in Georgia and Florida, over 20% of Black women are not insured. By providing access to Medicare and bypassing state legislatures and governors that sought to restrict access, Black women could have access to essential care.

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Almost 10% of essential workers lack insurance of any kind, and of those who have insurance, the Brookings Institution projects that they might have to spend up to $1 billion in health insurance costs due to their heightened probability of becoming infected. This financial burden on essential workers and lack of access to care could either ruin families financially or lead families to defer care, putting themselves and others at risk. Essential workers must have access to affordable health care.

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20.1% of Latinx workers under the age of 65 did not have insurance before the pandemic, the second highest rate of any group. Combined with the disproportionate loss of income and jobs during the pandemic that Latinx people have experienced, this number is likely higher today, indicating a need for access to Medicare.

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One in three Native Americans are uninsured. Native Americans would gain much needed access to health care under an automatic Medicare enrollment proposal, which is also essential to addressing the high prevalence of pre-existing conditions that make individuals more vulnerable to COVID-19.

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Over 11% of women remain uninsured nationwide, and that number will increase as up to 43 million Americans lose their employer-provided insurance. As women are more likely to have lost their jobs, they are also more likely to have lost their insurance. Automatic Medicare enrollment will ensure they can access the care they need.

Universal Basic Income with Automatic Triggers

The Economic Policy Institute has estimated that up to 33 million people have lost income due to the pandemic. Past recessions have demonstrated that individual stimulus payments can help families, by keeping them afloat, and the economy, by counteracting a decrease in demand and supporting consumer spending. However, because these payments are distributed as part of a federal response and on a discretionary basis, their return to economy may be reduced: the funds may be either too small, too late, or discontinued too early.

 

A universal basic income for the duration of this crisis would support individuals who have lost jobs, are caring for sick loved ones, or are experiencing other types of income shocks. Passing legislation to automatically disburse payments based on recent changes in the economy – such as the employment rate – would make these individual payments immediately available and limit economic damage by ensuring the response is immediate and proportionate. These payments would be distributed until the unemployment rate returns to an acceptable level. Senator Bennet and Senator Brown, along with other Democrats in the Senate and in the House, have introduced legislation that would accomplish these goals.

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For the 54% of Black women who have lost jobs or had their hours cut, a universal basic income with automatic triggers would provide a much needed lifeline. It would also lead to much needed equity. Black women earn 39% less than white men and 21% less than white women. A universal basic income would be a small step towards rebalancing the scales.

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Workers should not have to choose between their employment and their health. A universal basic income for the remainder of the crisis would ensure that essential workers with pre-existing conditions and care responsibilities would be able to support themselves without quitting their jobs (which would make them ineligible for Unemployment Insurance).

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Latinx Americans were more likely than any group to experience a drop in income to the pandemic. Families need help now, and access to a basic income during the crisis would help these families pay the bills until the crisis is over. 

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Almost a quarter of Native Americans were living in poverty before the pandemic. Now, that number is even higher, particularly in communities reliant on the gaming industry. A universal basic income would ensure that families can survive until the pandemic is over.

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A Universal Basic Income would both protect the millions of women who have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic and ensure that women are properly compensated for the care work they perform, which has now become even more vital.

Postal Banking

Individual payments, as mentioned above, remain a highly effective policy to bolster consumer demand during recessions. However, getting the money to those who need it most remains logistically difficult. The IRS estimates that while individuals who used direct deposit in the past for their taxes will receive the payment quickly, those who have not could have to wait up to two months to receive their stimulus check. These individuals are more likely to be underbanked and are therefore among the most vulnerable to hardship in this time. Furthermore, once recipients receive their checks, they may have to pay significant fees to cash them, reducing the value of the stimulus

 

Postal banking would combat the rise of “banking deserts.” As margins on accounts declined, banks in poorer areas (both rural and urban) began to disappear. This means that many of the communities most in need have no formal banking sector to turn to. However, these communities still have post offices and are thus accessible through the postal system. 

 

To ensure that every American can receive stimulus payments quickly, efficiently, and without additional fees, we should authorize the United States Postal Service to have bank accounts. This system – which existed from 1911 until the 1960s – would provide both easily accessible banking services for every American while improving the postal service’s finances. Senator Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would accomplish these goals.

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According to the FDIC, nearly half of Black households are unbanked or underbanked. This may have delayed access to stimulus checks and would make it harder to receive additional aid. Low-cost bank accounts would therefore help Black women by speeding up access to government assistance and reducing fees paid over time for other financial transactions.

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Millions of low-income households, many of whom are essential workers, did not receive their stimulus check from the government. A postal banking option would provide all Americans access to an account that could ease this process.

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14.2% of Latinx households were unbanked in 2017, the second highest of any group. Access to affordable, reliable banking would insure access to government benefits, such as stimulus payments, and the formal banking sector.

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Millions of low-income households did not receive their stimulus check from the government, because they did not file taxes, the IRS did not have their account on file, or they had moved. A postal banking option would provide all Americans access to an account that could ease this process.

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Approximately 15.5% of Native Americans are unbanked. Access to postal banking is therefore an essential service that will ensure government payments reach recipients quickly and effectively.

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Households headed by women are more likely to be unbanked. Postal banking could increase access to financial services by placing low-cost financial services in the communities. 

Housing Relief

The Aspen Institute estimates that 40 million Americans could face eviction in the coming month, representing up to 43% of renters overall. Those households are at risk for losing their income, and without help, losing their housing. Furthermore, four million homeowners have already asked for mortgage forbearance, demonstrating that homeowners and renters are at risk. 

 

Housing relief is therefore critical to ensure that families can stay in their homes and remain safe, even if they experience income losses. This requires a two-pronged approach. First, homeowners must have access to mortgage forbearance, where missed payments are tacked onto the end of the loan. Second, renters need immediate relief to help them pay rent and stay in their homes, which could come in the form of an expansion of the Section 8 program to an entitlement program to ensure that families only have to pay as much rent as they can afford.

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Almost 63% of Black women renters are rent-burdened, the highest of any demographic. Housing relief would therefore help Black women the most, helping more families stay in their homes and stay healthy during a pandemic.

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13 million essential workers earn less than $15/hour. Nationally, 84% of renters in this income bracket were rent burdened before the pandemic, indicating that rent burdens are very high in this population and that they would benefit from federal assistance.

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A full 53.7% of Latinx households are rent-burdened. Combined with disproportionate job loss in this community, housing burdens are particularly acute during the pandemic. Housing relief would keep families in their homes. 

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Almost 30% of low-wage full-time workers reported experiencing housing insecurity before the pandemic. These numbers will only increase as job losses mount, demonstrating how important housing relief is to low-wage workers during this time.

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Before the pandemic, 50.2% of Native Americans were rent burdened, and with high rates of unemployment, these families will need help if they are to stay in their homes. Housing relief is necessary to keep households intact through the pandemic.

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Women are more likely than men to be rent-burdened, are more likely to live in poverty, and are more likely to have recently lost their employment. Access to housing relief will allow families to stay in their homes for the duration of the pandemic.

Federal Jobs Guarantee and a Living Wage for All

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Work Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide employment opportunities and perform essential services. As the United States struggles to provide sufficient personal protective equipment, food, medical supplies, child care, and other services during the coronavirus pandemic, reconstituting these programs would address multiple public policy goals.

 

These jobs would provide a living wage and benefits, ensuring that the workers performing these essential duties receive appropriate compensation and protection (including labor protections and whistleblower protections). This would lay the groundwork for a permanent Federal Jobs Guarantee, an essential policy intervention to reduce inequality and provide a living wage for all.

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Black women are most likely to work in the service industry, most likely to work low-income jobs, most likely to be essential workers, and are least likely to have access to health care. A federal jobs guarantee would ensure not only a base of pay for these workers, but also a base of benefits. A federal option would provide economic stability, competition to the private market, and better access to healthcare.

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A federal jobs guarantee would provide an alternative to essential workers seeking labor protections and a higher income, and would put pressure on employers to treat essential workers appropriately. As Amazon continues to post record profits, their workers continue to be vulnerable. A federal jobs guarantee would provide an alternative to the private market while still ensuring services are provided.

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A federal jobs guarantee would provide a public option for good, well-paid jobs. Given that Latinx workers have been disproportionately disadvantaged by the economic fallout of the pandemic and are more likely to work in the care and hospitality industries, this option would make sure that anyone who wanted a job would have one.

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A federal jobs guarantee would provide a living wage to workers who have recently been laid off. The public option could also lead to higher wages across employers, as workers could choose government employment at a living wage.

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Unemployment, particularly on reservations, remains unacceptably high. Before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for Native Americans overall was 7.8%, but over 40% on some reservations. Over 700,000 jobs on reservations have been lost since the pandemic began. Guaranteed access to good jobs would help make up the loss of these jobs while also ensuring that those who want a job can find one.

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A federal jobs guarantee would provide a crucial lifeline to the millions of women who have recently lost their jobs. It would also be essential in the effort to close the gender wage gap: women in public jobs now have a narrower gender wage gap than in the private sector. As such, expanding public sector employment for women could help move towards equal pay.

Expanded Emergency Medical Leave Act (EMLA)

Every worker should have access to paid time off to care for themselves and their family. While Congress passed the Emergency Medical Leave Act, the vast majority of workers were not covered and remain without access to paid leave. This not only puts workers and their families at risk, but also endangers public health. Expanding the EMLA to include all workers is crucial to protecting families and communities, especially during a pandemic. After the pandemic, this should become a universal program, as no one should ever have to choose between providing care and losing their job.

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Only 43% of Black workers report having access to paid leave. This is even more problematic for Black mothers, 81% of whom report being the main breadwinner in their household. Expanding access to paid leave will therefore make Black families and workers more stable and more financially secure.

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Though the initial CARES Act expanded paid leave, roughly 75% of Americans work for companies that were excluded from the new rules. This is unacceptable, and needlessly puts essential workers at risk. Expanding paid leave to all would ensure essential workers can take time off if they need it.

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Latinx workers are the least likely of any group to have paid sick leave, and more than half do not have access to a single paid sick day. This is particularly dangerous during the pandemic. Access to paid leave for everyone would keep families safer from both a health and economic standpoint.

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93% of low-wage workers have no access to paid leave. The choice between a job and coming to work sick or caring for a sick family member is a choice no one should have to make. Expanding access to paid leave will protect workers, their families, and the public.

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Native Americans are more likely to have chronic health conditions than white Americans, and it is therefore crucial that they have access to paid time off to protect their health and their family’s health without risking economic harm.

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Only 13% of workers have access to paid leave, and 75% of workers were left out of the Emergency Medical Leave Act. As families are put under increasing stress and women need to care for children who are now at home, access to paid leave is essential to keep families afloat. Women should not have to choose between caring for a sick family member or their jobs.

Protect the Right to Organize

The COVID crisis has highlighted how workers — particularly newly labeled “essential workers” — have little power in dictating the terms of their employment. Amazon has threatened to fire workers protesting their working conditions, while other companies do not provide sufficient protection from the coronavirus. Workers who have insufficient access to protective equipment have fallen ill, and some have passed away, even as their employers post record profit numbers. Frontline workers have also spoken up about labor conditions, and many have been met with retaliation. 

 

This demonstrates the crucial importance of worker input regarding the terms of their labor. As the Roosevelt Institute argues, “Congress should require businesses that receive federal assistance or that are in essential industries to establish mechanisms for worker participation in workplace health and safety measures.” This will ensure that workers, and in particular whistleblowers, are protected through the crisis and beyond.

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Overall, only 10% of workers belong to a union, and those numbers are even lower in essential roles. For example, only 8.3% of nurses’ aides, housekeepers, and other health care support workers in the U.S. are supported by a union.

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Latinx workers are the least likely of any group to belong to a union, and the wage premium for Latinx workers is higher than that of any other group. This means that Latinx workers are most likely to benefit from a union.

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Low-wage workers are unlikely to be a part of a union. Only 2.8% of workers in sales positions (such as retail workers), 5% of domestic workers, and 3.5% of those working in food preparation and related services are members of a union. Overall, only 3% of individuals in households earning less than $40,000 per year are in a union, compared to 10% of the workforce overall. However, we know that particularly among low-wage workers, unionization has a huge payoff in earnings. Allowing these workers to unionize will not only improve their working conditions to keep them safe but could also increase their income

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The poverty rate among Native Americans is 21.7%, the highest of any group. Access to union jobs, if wanted, could lead to higher wages.

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Women represented by unions earned more and had a lower wage gap than women who were not represented by a union. As women are more likely to be in essential roles during the pandemic, they must have a say in their workplace conditions. To ensure that employers are sufficiently protecting the health of their workers, women must be allowed to organize.

Expand Access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Across the nation, food banks are reporting a surge in need and child hunger has increased five times since the crisis began. In response, policymakers should expand SNAP and remove time limitations. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is one of the most effective methods to both help families and the economy since SNAP dollars can be distributed quickly and are completely spent each month. Every dollar spent through SNAP can lead to a multiplier of almost $2. As such, both families and the economy would be helped by this simple, humane policy. 

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Black households are more likely to be food-insecure than white households. Combined with the greater likelihood of Black women losing their jobs and working at low-wage jobs, access to SNAP will be an important source of food security through the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Overall, essential workers are more likely than non-essential workers to access federal programs like SNAP. As food prices increase through the pandemic, increasing SNAP allocations will allow essential workers to put food on the table. 

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Almost a quarter of Latinx households with children experience food insecurity, the second highest of any group. Access to increased SNAP benefits could decrease hunger among these families.

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Before the pandemic, around 31% of low-wage workers were food-insecure, and with job losses mounting, that number is increasing. Broadening access to SNAP will put food on the table of those who need it most.

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Before the pandemic, a quarter of Native American households experienced food insecurity, and as joblessness increases, this number will only climb. Increasing access to SNAP will prevent hunger, while also putting more money into local economies.

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Approximately 15 million households were food-insecure before the pandemic, and with 20 million people filing for unemployment — the majority of them women — and that number will only increase. Access to SNAP is necessary to ensure women can continue to feed their families.

Climate and Environmental Justice

There is a clear connection between the climate crisis and the pandemic. A lack of access to clean water and air is exacerbating the severity of coronavirus, as pollution exacerbates the severity of infection. More than two million Americans are without access to clean water, which renders basic hygiene — a crucial step to prevent infection — impossible. Addressing climate change and pursuing environmental justice is a necessity today and for the future.

 

Without prioritizing green infrastructure and a reduction in emissions, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will be more severe. Policies that seek to limit emissions, clean up superfund sites, and expand access to clean water will not only reduce the severity of coronavirus infections today but also protect communities moving forward. Finally, the economic benefits of addressing climate change could also help the economic recovery, creating green jobs and promoting innovation.

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Black families are most likely to live in environmentally-compromised neighborhoods. People of color are 75% more likely to live in “fence-line communities,” neighborhoods adjacent to polluting industries, than white people.  Addressing environmental racism will ensure healthier communities today and for the future.

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A Green New Deal or effort to clean up the environment would create new, well-paying jobs. This could benefit those currently working and low-wage jobs with few benefits. 

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A Green New Deal or effort to clean up the environment would create new, well-paying jobs. This could benefit those currently working and low-wage jobs with few benefits. 

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A Green New Deal or effort to clean up the environment would create new, well-paying jobs. This could benefit those currently working and low-wage jobs with few benefits. 

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Native Americans are more likely than any other group to lack access to clean water. According to the EPA, the greatest public health risk in the Navajo Nation remains unregulated drinking water, as it is contaminated from uranium mining. Repeated crude oil spills on Native land further contaminates the land and water. This leads to waterborne diseases and cancers, decreasing life expectancy and increasing poverty rates, all of which could make a COVID-19 infection more deadly. Without access to clean water, basic hygienic practices (e.g. handwashing) necessary to prevent COVID-19 infection are impossible.  Environmental justice is a necessary component to any COVID-19 response.

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Women, and particularly low-income women with children, are more likely to suffer as a result of climate change and climate-related disasters. Committing to a transition to a clean economy will improve the health and well-being of families.