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COVID-19 exposes America’s broken social safety net

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As the saying goes, when the average American coughs, a person of color catches the flu. While COVID-19 is far more serious than the flu, its intensity — as measured by loss of life, lost wages, and learning gaps — has been devastating to people of color. Across the nation, we are now forced to reckon with just how inequitable and inadequate our social safety net actually is. Now, more than ever, we are seeing the critical role our public institutions play in anchoring our society in a storm. And we cannot help but see the deep inequities that people of color face in weathering that storm.

All of the issues that have been swept under the rug for decades are now laid bare for us to see: No paid sick leave. Broken healthcare systems. Lack of affordable housing. Families who were living paycheck to paycheck that are now unemployed. Inequitable funding for our public schools, worsened by closures and students without access to food or the internet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the wide opportunity gaps for low-income families and communities of color. The truth is — the wealthy will be taken care of. They will work from home and be able to maintain their social distance, and their 401ks and stock portfolios will bounce back. Meanwhile, low-income students and their families will pay the price — yet again.

Two years ago, the Schott Foundation released the Loving Cities Index to sound the alarm. We understood that persistent inequities were undermining our communities’ ability to care for the most vulnerable — long before COVID-19 thrust them into the spotlight. With the Loving Cities Index, we sought to provide a new framework to help cities assess their ability to provide essential supports for students and their families. A “Loving City” prioritizes legislation and funding of supports that benefit the most vulnerable, including high-quality education, stellar healthcare, clean air, healthy food, public transit, livable wages, and affordable housing. Our analysis of the failures of America’s cities to be “loving” was a foretelling of the future, predicting the dire outcomes that we are now seeing with COVID-19.

Last month, Congress rapidly mobilized to pass an unprecedented $2 trillion bill geared at creating stimulus and preventing a coronavirus-induced recession. This proves that the money has always been available — our leaders have just been unwilling to spend it on the people who need it the most. America has the money to put a school nurse and social worker in every school building. We have the money to ensure that every family has affordable and stable housing and to provide every resident has access to healthcare and broadband internet. And most importantly, we have the money to ensure that every resident feels loved and supported by their government. Sadly, our elected leaders don’t seem to care.

Now more than ever, we must acknowledge that having a functioning and caring government infrastructure is good for every resident.

Likewise, the value of local community organizations and partners is also no longer debatable. Where our public resources show up, or fail to show up in some cases, local organizations have stepped up to fill the voids and buoy our local communities.

The word philanthropy means “love for humankind.” These community-based organizations are standing on the front lines to help fill the gaps and provide the loving resources that communities need in times of crisis. At the same time, they continue to organize and advocate for justice and equity.

This pandemic will end, but it should cause us to forge lasting solutions that establish real and lasting loving systems and partnership geared towards creating a more equitable system for all our nation’s residents. Today, we must take heed to Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Dr. John H. Jackson is President and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. He previously served as National Director of Education and Chief Policy Officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 2000-2007. In 1999, President William Jefferson Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson to serve as Senior Policy Advisor in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education.

Tags Affordable housing coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Economic inequality Educational inequality minority Poverty social safety net

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