We are amid a catastrophic pandemic that is disproportionately hurting communities of color. The twin disasters of Covid-19 and the economic fallout are leaving families reeling from sickness coupled with economic and food anxiety. The US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December. All of them were held by women and people of color. Vaccinations are beginning, offering much-needed hope, but sadly it will not undo the economic damage COVID has done to communities of color.
At this time, community-led infrastructure job creation is critical to address the massive job losses that these marginalized populations have endured as part of the worst-hit labor market. The new Congress and Biden Administration will need to create jobs and opportunities quickly to help get people back to work, especially in distressed communities. To do that, they will need to empower frontline leaders with go-fast, start-up funding needed to kick-start their most critical projects. President-elect Biden’s new emergency recovery proposal wisely starts down this road, with an initial proposal for $3 billion for regional economic recovery through the Economic Development Administration. The reality is they can do much more.
The little economic recovery we have seen has been wildly uneven. Housing has surged while the most exposed industries continue to suffer. People are struggling to survive as the untenable coronavirus and its more than 1 million new cases per week continue.
Since April, workers of color have faced the highest rates of pandemic-related unemployment. It is astounding that Black and Latino people are facing greater rates of unemployment than they experienced in the 2008 Great Recession. Part-time workers and workers in low-wage sectors are seeing some of the highest job losses in the pandemic. They continue to face increasing and unprecedented rates of unemployment and underemployment.
In the best of times, Latino and Black workers occupy jobs that have been wiped out by this pandemic. Black and Latino are heavily represented in service, production, transportation, material moving, natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations, Many of those job losses are concentrated in extremely crucial sectors both for economic growth and racial equity, most notably, the public sector.
In September 800,000 educators in the public sector were forced from their jobs, due to COVID, according to the Center For Law and Social Policy November Jobs report. Losses in one sector translate to job loss in related sectors. As many children stay home, other industries, like the childcare sector, have not seen jobs return either. Sadly, job gains are in high-risk, high contact, but low-wage industries. Jobs with high potential for coronavirus exposure are the ones that remain.
The problems are clear, we need to identify and implement feasible solutions with long-lasting effects.
We saw what happens when top-down economic relief packages are enacted. Corporations and the wealthy by and large pocketed their economic relief packages and did not pass them down to those who desperately need them. Alejandra Castillo, CEO of YWCA USA and former National Director of the Minority Business Development Agency for the Obama Administration provided this insight:
“We know from the past that we cannot just invest at the top and hope for trickle-down impact, this pandemic has amplified what many of us on the ground already knew: that women and communities of color have long faced social and structural infrastructure divestment. We need to re-imagine the health and prosperity of communities and build a comprehensive social and physical infrastructure plan that will create well-paying jobs. To truly do this we need to play to where the future of our economy is going as well as the future of work.”
To avoid a similar problem with subsequent government stimulus funds, Dan Carol a veteran of the Obama Administration who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University’s Urban & Regional Planning program said:
“We know that we must prioritize economic recovery efforts to reach communities of color and distressed urban and rural communities. To jumpstart recovery and resurgence, we need to get catalytic capital and capacity into the hands of local leaders who already know what community infrastructure projects they need to build, from hospitals and emergency facilities to clean water.”
Without a doubt, we are going to have to start from the bottom up, following the acceleration pathways identified through research by The Milken Institute which points to three Obama-era programs as a path forward. These programs sought to catalyze equitable community development and provided research-based evidence of what is possible. These programs point the way forward if they are fine-tuned to fit current needs and challenges.
First, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, brought HUD-EPA and DOT dollars together to fund community plans. But due to a lack of project implementation dollars, these failed to produce substantive change. Predevelopment funding would fix that.
Second, the Investing in Manufacturing Community Partnerships (IMCP) program didn’t offer communities a dime, but certified communities as “ready” and able to blend federal program dollars that by themselves were too inflexible to use. Yet this innovative approach to funding new local manufacturing initiatives was killed by Congressional appropriators who want to control doling out earmarks. The IMCP deserves a second look, boosted by an initial jumpstart grant.
Third, the successful $2 billion State Small Business Credit Initiative to get funding out to communities is a strong example of the Obama era program structure that is fast but accountable. It offers a strong model to build from. Under this initiative, funding flowed to Governors to address a specific need (funding for entrepreneurs), the US Treasury did the oversight, and strong program evaluations kept watch on taxpayer funds.
Using this basic structure, with a carve-out goal to ensure funding flows to at least 50 percent of the most distressed communities, could be the heart of a Community Catalyst fund idea.
Finally, creating an Office of Community Mobilization within the National Economic Council or the Domestic Policy Council would strengthen the impact of these programs. This would also help to ensure that siloed federal agencies lean into a new set of metrics that value community outcomes over programmatic orthodoxies.
Job creation is critical. Vulnerable communities are facing insurmountable challenges and losses. Media images of endless lines of people waiting for food boxes tell a shocking and undeniable story. Job loss, food and housing insecurity, and a lack of insurance are creating a depression-like experience for many with long term consequences for everyone.
As Congress and this new administration are set to debate what may ultimately be lifesaving legislation, decisive and long-lasting action is necessary. The key groundwork was laid by the Obama-Biden administration for new delivery systems that can be scaled with new capital and capacity and given directly to frontline leaders. The time to act is now. Bi-partisan efforts by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC) to fortify their original 2016 Opportunity Zones proposal for delivering catalytic investment to create jobs and community infrastructure should also be incorporated into local solutions.
Kristian Ramos is the founder and principal of Autonomy Strategies and a former spokesman for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.