Securing an Equitable Recovery
The coronavirus pandemic has had previously unimaginable and devastating impacts on the country. In one year, over half-a-million Americans died from the virus. Job loss and food insecurity reached levels not seen in decades. Racial disparities in health and economic outcomes that preceded the pandemic came into plain view and widened dramatically.
Pandemic response measures—including expanded unemployment benefits, nutrition assistance, eviction moratoria, and cash relief for individuals and families—have been vital to stem the tide of suffering in the wake of the immediate crisis. Yet, prior to the pandemic, far too many people were already experiencing significant hardship and need. Large shares of children and young adults lived in poverty at critical developmental periods. Far too many workers—disproportionately women and people of color—experienced poverty as a result of low wages, lack of benefits, and underemployment.1 Our public policies failed to sufficiently meet the health, mental health, and nutrition needs of people with low incomes. Policymakers largely ignored the needs of families to balance work and caregiving. Systemic racism worsened these challenges for Black, Latinx, Native, and Asian American (AA), Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities.
As the country works to recover and rebuild, it is imperative that we not simply try to “get back to normal” if that means replicating the inequitable status quo that preceded the coronavirus. The public health and economic crises have not abated. We must prioritize the needs of people who have suffered the most from the pandemic, and we must invest in the future: the country’s children and youth. Our nation’s most essential infrastructure is, and always will be, our people. Consequently, we must harness the full resources of the federal government to support those whose potential has been perpetually blocked by structural barriers: people with low incomes and communities of color.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) ushered in a powerful change in social policy—prioritizing investments in people with low incomes and Black, Latinx, Native and AA and NHPI communities—to begin building a foundation for an equitable economic recovery. The Biden-Harris Administration is now proposing major investments in jobs, infrastructure, caregiving, and health care. As the Administration and Congress turn to economic recovery legislation, the country must make further investments to support people with low incomes in the long term and eradicate the vast gender and racial disparities and inequities that worsened the impacts of the pandemic.
A robust, equitable, inclusive economic recovery must include investment in good jobs for all, the care economy, income supports, and mental health. It must include a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers who are essential to our economy. And it must center those who have been historically disinvested in, including Black and brown communities, and Native children and young adults— all of whom have always been integral to the present success and future of our country.
Invest in Good Jobs for All
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis devastated the health and economic wellbeing of millions of families with low incomes. Workers of color, immigrants, young people, women, workers in jobs paying low wages, and frontline workers are among the hardest hit by these crises. Worse still, significant job losses and reductions in income have deepened racial inequities and exacerbated poverty and economic hardship for millions.
Prior to the pandemic, women and people of color dominated low-paying jobs, characterized by lack of health benefits and paid leave, along with often unpredictable and unstable work schedules. As many as 4 in 10 workers were underemployed—meaning they work part time but would prefer to work more hours and are unable to do so.2 Women, Black, and Latinx workers were overrepresented in the low-paid workforce. Forty percent of this workforce was raising children and nearly 25 percent was made up of workers under the age of 25.3national unemployment rate was 8.4 percent, but it was far higher for workers of color. For Asian American workers, it was 10.5 percent, and it was 10.7 and 13.7 percent for Latinx and Black workers, respectively.4 At the same time, the unemployment rate for workers aged 20-24 was 14.1 percent.5
Despite making up 49 percent of the labor force, women experienced 55 percent of job losses in April 2020, driving the female unemployment rate to double digits for the first time in decades.6 Women of color have faced even grimmer job losses than women overall. In December, women accounted for 100 percent of all jobs lost and, as of January, 1.4 million more mothers were not actively working for pay in January compared to pre-pandemic levels.7
Today’s recession, like the Great Recession, and so many crises before it, makes clear the consequences of neglect and underinvestment. Continuing to overlook and underprioritize people of color, young people, women, and communities with low incomes will only ensure that they continue to suffer disproportionately. As we work to rebuild, we must avoid making the same inequitable cracks in our national foundation.
As the Biden-Harris Administration has proposed, an infrastructure package can create millions of new jobs. It’s imperative that individuals who have experienced the largest barriers to work opportunities and good jobs be centered in infrastructure investments. Core to our economic recovery is the need to urgently prioritize investments in high-quality career pathways and programs like pre-apprenticeships, registered apprenticeships, and subsidized and transitional employment programs that get people back to work.
The same populations that were overrepresented in the low-paid workforce prior to the pandemic have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic-induced economic crisis. In August 2020, the
Subsidized jobs programs have supported the country in times of economic crisis before, and they can do so again. During the Great Depression, the federal government effectively used subsidized jobs programs in the New Deal such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to put millions back to work, building roads, bridges, and infrastructure that paid dividends for generations. Unfortunately, some of the other New Deal programs reinforced segregation and racial inequity.8
During the Great Recession, states used funding from the TANF Emergency Fund to create a range of subsidized jobs programs, employing over a quarter-million workers in one of the largest programs in decades.9
A well-designed and implemented subsidized jobs program should prioritize equity by targeting workers with the greatest barriers to employment and connecting them to well-paid employment.
Recovery priorities should include a large-scale permanent and year-round national youth subsidized jobs program, prioritizing young adults of color. Young people ages 18-24 account for 24 percent of all workers in low-wage occupations that have been permanently shuttered by the pandemic such as retail sales workers, cooks, and servers. Workers under age 24 without a degree earn a median hourly wage of $8.55.10 Many of the young adults working hard for these low wages rely on them to meet their own basic needs, support their families, or pay for their education. A national subsidized employment program would be an effective response to reconnecting the nearly 3 out of 10 young adults who are now out of school and work during the pandemic and can ensure the long- term success of young people who have persistently been left out of our economy.11
Transitional jobs programs, which combine subsidized employment with supportive services, skill building, and job development, are an evidence-based strategy for providing work experience and earned income to people facing barriers to accessing employment even when the economy is growing. Transitional jobs have also proven to be particularly effective at serving people impacted by the criminal legal system. This program should target dislocated workers—particularly opportunity youth, people of color, immigrants, youth and adults impacted by the criminal justice system, individuals with foundational skills needs, English language learners, and workers who live in areas of substantial unemployment.12
Registered apprenticeships are one of the nation’s most successful federally authorized workforce development programs, and they are key to revitalizing our nation’s infrastructure. Registered apprenticeships ensure high-quality employment outcomes for participants through guided pathways, robust work and life supports, on-the-job training, and mentorship. Meanwhile, high-quality pre-apprenticeships help bridge the gap, ensuring equity in access and participation, especially for people of color, women, and young people who have been historically prevented from accessing apprenticeships.
Expanded career and technical education (CTE), work-based learning, and career readiness programs are an essential step to recouping lost education and economic opportunity since the pandemic. Job losses since the pandemic’s onset disproportionately impacted young adults, and in particular young adults of color who were already at structural disadvantage to access quality employment and education pathways. These strategies are also critical for youth and adults impacted by the criminal justice system who face long-term collateral consequences and structural barriers to employment. Recovering from the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic requires redressing long-standing inequities in access to high-quality education and training that leads to credentials and stable, high-wage employment.
Invest in the Care Economy to Support Caregivers and Working Families
The country is in desperate need of a modern caregiving infrastructure that supports families, ensuring that people do not have to trade off the need to earn a living with the need and desire to care for loved ones. This caregiving infrastructure must also assure that those who provide paid care — disproportionately women of color — receive the dignity they deserve, beginning with familysustaining wages. COVID-19 did not create our country’s caregiving crisis, but it clearly exacerbated it. The care economy makes all other work possible. There is no economic recovery without robust investments in care.
President Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan proposes a landmark investment to strengthen our care infrastructure by investing in home and community-based care and raising wages and benefits for the workers who do the critical work of caring for our nation’s elderly and disabled. This proposal must be complemented with equally robust investments in paid leave and child care.