COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the racial and social disparities across the country, specifically the outsized impact of the pandemic on women and people of color. Many higher education institutions are reevaluating their role in equitable economic development, prompted by a renewed and widespread interest in eliminating racial disparities in education, healthcare, food access, and economic opportunity at the institutional and community level.
As leaders of economic growth and social reform within their locality, institutions must turn innate economic activity into strategic initiatives and audit intentional economic development programs to ensure inclusivity, accessibility, and equity. To put it another way, economic recovery must become economic justice.
Disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC and women
To ensure recovery activities are just, higher education leaders must first understand how the economic impacts of COVID-19 vary by race and ethnicity.
Due to the history of redlining and other racist policies, Black and Hispanic/Latino people are more likely than white Americans to live in densely populated areas, increasing their likelihood of contact with a large number of people.¹ These areas usually have limited access to healthcare resources and healthy food options, causing disproportionate rates of co-morbidities like hypertension and diabetes. As a direct result of these realities and the historic lack of funding for community resources in these neighborhoods, communities of color have greater rates of COVID-19 infection and death. Black and Hispanic/Latino death rates for those ages 45-54 are six times higher than for white people within the same range.²
Income decline between March and July 2020
Late rent and mortgage payments between March and July 2020
Black and Hispanic/Latino populations have also been more likely to lose income and fall behind on rent and mortgage payments because of the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau’s Household pulse survey. While 38% of white households dealt with a decline in income between March and July 2020, 58% of Hispanic households and 53% of Black households experienced a loss in pay. More Black and Hispanic/Latino families are behind on rent and mortgage payments than their white counterparts as well—18% of Latino and 17% of Black households reported the inability to pay compare to 8% of white families.³
Additionally, gains in employment made in the fall backtracked in December, further highlighting the disproportionate effects on communities of color. In December 2020, women accounted for all the 140,000 jobs losses—losing 156,000 jobs while men gained 16,000—but the losses were not felt equally among race. Latinas have the highest rate of unemployment at 9.1%, Black woman have the second highest at 8.4%, and white women have the lowest.⁴ Analyzing a single month of data is limiting but December unemployment rates showcase a concerning trend across 2020 that will likely spill into the new year: women of color are more likely to be out of work because of COVID-19.
If economic recovery activities are not equitable, populations who do not benefit from net improvement in unemployment rates continue to be at risk, further entrenching these socio-economic disparities.
Encourage and implement economic justice activities as leaders in the community
Higher education institutions are economic drivers simply by their existence and most have some form of community engagement or economic development activities established. So, while budgets are tightening and strategic plans are paused, institutions can still put intention behind inherent economic activity and bolster programming through institutional talent and partnerships with community leaders.
Here are four strategies higher education leaders can consider now to bolster economic justice:
1. Identify institutional strengths through a multidisciplinary lens.
The economic pressures exacerbated by COVID-19 impact nearly every area of life—work, childcare, housing, and health. People of color are often thwarted by structural barriers and systemically racist policies as they navigate an increasingly difficult economic landscape. Community programming assistance in one area may help a person overcome that barrier only to be stymied by the next.
Affordable housing programs are one such example. While housing is a necessity, it does not alone solve issues like access to healthcare, healthy food, employment opportunities, or childcare.
Higher education institutions are well positioned to offer holistic programming through a multidisciplinary lens. Determine institutional strengths in research and faculty expertise, existing community programs, and external partnerships to identify opportunities for collaboration.
2. Use institutional strengths to determine where to pivot innate economic activity into strategic initiatives.
Higher education institutions conduct a wide range of innate economic activities–they are large purchasers, employers, and conveners of students, faculty, staff, and community members (even virtually). Many of these innate economic activities have the potential to become strategic and intentional to support economic justice.
Strategies to purchase locally, partnerships with local businesses owned by people of color, and hiring practices infused with racially just protocols are strong places to start. See examples from three partner institutions below.
The University of Pittsburgh established the Supplier Diversity Program to increase the amount of goods purchased for the university from diverse suppliers.
Empower, a student-created initiative at Cornell University, connects Black-owned businesses with student volunteers who have interest and expertise in areas like social media account management and graphic design.
The Committee on the Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement of Underrepresented Minority Faculty at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County provides trainings on inclusive hiring best practices for department chairs and requires departments to submit a proposal explaining how each new search process will create a diverse pool of candidates.
3. Analyze data from multiple sources and various scopes to better understand community need.
Data aggregated by race and ethnicity is essential to create inclusive and equitable economic development strategies because analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on different populations helps identify community need.
Data analysis can be conducted by faculty, interns, community development offices, or shared and disseminated across the institution. State government partners can be strong sources of information and there is a plethora of external sources as well, including:
- CDC’s COVID-19 impact report by race, weighted by geography
- Economic Policy Institute’s wage report
- Census bureau's household pulse survey
- Urban Institute’s tool analyzes Household Pulse Survey data to show how BIPOC are faring with the various impacts of COVID-19, from employment income loss to health insurance coverage
4. Include diverse community members to confirm highest areas of need, identify gaps in programming, and determine implementation best practices.
Economic justice initiatives ensure programs reach all the populations with need. Noncitizens, for example, are often excluded from federal assistance, surveys, and community engagement activities. Diverse community partners are therefore essential to reach vulnerable populations and help identify programming best practices.
Review existing partnerships to locate diverse community allies or opportunities to create new partnerships. Invite community partners to important institutional meetings—like the dean’s council—to review local needs and opportunities for coordination. Reach out to community centers and health clinics to identify potential engagements.
With these partners, create flexible community programming in line with the needs of the population. Enshrine flexibility with part-time options, events and courses offered at various times throughout the day and provide travel accommodations and childcare options where possible.
The Hartland Partnership Center at the University of Utah is led by local community leaders who help identify needs and strengths in the area. The center also supports mental health and citizenship programs, hosts employment workshops, and provides after-school programs and English-language classes.
- Washington Post, Redlining was banned 50 years ago.
- Brookings, Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear.
- Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, The Economic Impacts of COVID-19 Disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic households.
- CNN, The US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December. All of them were held by women
Move beyond debate and take action
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