COVID-19 Shines a Light on Multidimensional Poverty

By Maryann Broxton, U.S. Coordinator, Multidimensional Aspects of Poverty (MAP) research, ATD Fourth World

For the past three and a half years I have been the U.S. coordinator for the Multidimensional Aspects of Poverty (MAP) research to determine the dimensions of poverty. That experience, along with my own personal experience of poverty, has given me a unique perspective in recognizing the consequences of COVID-19 as wide scale multidimensional poverty.

Everyday people are suddenly confronting zero-hour work weeks, unemployment, food shortages, housing fears, and lack of access to health care. This is what people with direct experience of poverty have been experiencing for years, in what has been considered “normal times” for everyone else. These are not siloed issues. They are interconnected; feeding off and supporting the other to create multidimensional poverty. My fear is that the people whose lives were already hard, will be the ones to fare the worst in this pandemic.

The employment hardships being experienced by over 30 million newly unemployed people have always been felt by people in poverty. The hard choices they’ve had to make, and feeling that "We are disposable" is even more relevant now. Every day low wage workers are risking exposure to feed their family and pay rent. In December, grocery store clerks were viewed as unskilled labor, but are now deemed as essential workers. As one New York City transit worker stated, "We are not essential. We are sacrificial." 

People all across the country are now trying to figure out how to pay rent. But lack of affordable housing continuously left people in poverty stressed; deciding what basics they could go without to make the payment. It also forces multiple generations of family into one crowded small apartment. This makes self-isolating impossible if one family member becomes ill, putting the entire family at risk.

Healthcare and access to it, where you live, and the amount of time you spend in poverty are all factors in health outcomes for people in poverty. Pre-COVID-19, participants in our research described the U.S. as, "Third World country conditions within the U.S., a wealthy country," and "Just enough to keep you alive - sometimes." Repeated handwashing is one of three Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations as a means of protection. However, the Navajo Nation lacks the infrastructure for running water in people’s homes. Knowing that this virus attacks the lungs, I’m also concerned for the people in Appalachia, where one in ten coal miners suffer from black lung disease. MAP participants in Southwest, Virginia told us the closest hospital near them is two-hour drive away in another state.

People in poverty also face shorter life spans: “When you are in poverty, you die sooner." When I speak publicly about MAP results, I underscore this quote with the example of two Boston neighborhoods. Roxbury, a mainly low-income, majority people of color area, and Back Bay, a more affluent, majority white area. They are less than four miles apart, but have a life expectancy difference of 30 years.

As more virus “hot spots” develop in low-income, majority people of color neighborhoods, racist tropes are still peddled as justification. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently told people of color to “step up,” avoid “alcohol and drugs” for their "abuela" and "pop-pop" as if contracting the virus was due to their moral failings. Race is not a contributing factor to catching COVID-19; systemic racism and poverty are.

To me, the phrase “we are all in this together” feels like a slap in the face. We didn’t all begin at the same starting point. You cannot do drive through testing – provided you can find testing – without a car. Your child cannot do online learning without internet. You cannot have home delivery of groceries if you are unbanked or live in a food desert. You cannot isolate if you live in a shelter or don’t have a home. 

Decades of policy furthering racial segregation, intuitional and environmental racism, the gender pay gap, racial wealth gap, toxic stress, and race based discrimination created the conditions for COVID-19 to ravage the people living in these communities. As MAP participants stated, “It’s been discriminatory policies that literally keep people in poverty” and “They put you in a crappy place, don’t give enough services and ‘hopefully’ you die in this crappy place because that’s all you deserved.” Inequity is what leads to the health conditions that makes people more susceptible to COVID-19. 

We need to do more than just acknowledge that these inequities exist. The questions we face now are: what will recovery look like? Will people with knowledge gained from direct experience of poverty be included in the decision process?  

I would like to be optimistic, but I look at the past as precedent. In 2017, I visited the seventh ward in New Orleans to train MAP peer group facilitators. Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina the people living there were still dealing with the fallout – food deserts, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, high levels of deep poverty, and toxic stress from living through a natural disaster. All this, after promises to rebuild anew. 

We cannot accept that some people will just fall behind. For society to truly recover from COVID-19, people with a direct experience of poverty must be included in decisions and implementation review. They know best what their family and communities need.