The ten-week total for unemployment claims has reached 40.8 million, suggesting about a quarter of our workforce has lost jobs during the pandemic and projections suggest that even if we start to recover, the unemployment rate will still be around 9.3% by the end of the year. And months into this pandemic, workers continue to struggle to stay safe and healthy on the job, particularly as states begin to reopen parts of the economy and state and local government budgets are ravaged.
And we know the reality is that we went into this pandemic with three ongoing interconnected crises: economic inequality, racial inequality, and climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on just how severe and disproportionate the impacts of these crises are.
Our nation has been struggling with deep and crippling economic inequality for decades.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the bottom 90% of the American workforce has seen their pay shrink radically as a share of total income,” from 58% in 1979 to 47% in 2015. That is almost $11,000 per household, or $1.35 trillion in additional labor income. There is a direct correlation with the decrease of worker power over this time, as the share of workers in a union fell from 24% in 1979 to under 11% now.
Not just now, as unemployment has skyrocketed disproportionally during the pandemic, but historically and persistently black Americans fare worse in our existing economy, having lower wages, less savings to fall back on, and significantly higher poverty rates as systemic racism has stacked the deck against people of color.
And now, with an ongoing global pandemic as a backdrop, Americans across the country have come together to fight against police violence and the systematic racism that has met black and brown Americans at every turn since before the nation was even founded.
The fact that the deck has been stacked against people of color is not up for debate. Data point after data point illustrates exactly how unequal our economy is. Regardless of education level, black workers are far more likely to be unemployed than white workers. In fact, historically, unemployment rates are twice as high for black workers. That disparity carries into the workplace as well, with black workers paid on average 73 cents to the dollar compared to white workers. The wage gap persists regardless of education, and even with advanced degrees black workers make far less than white workers at the same level. So, it’s no surprise that while the poverty rate for white Americans sits at about 8.1%, for Black household it’s 20.7%.
The COVID-19 pandemic puts an even sharper focus on the harmful impacts of this inequality. The systemic racism inherent in our society has proved deadly for black Americans, who regardless of making up just 12.5% of the U.S. population, represent 22.4% of COVID-19 deaths. It’s easy to see why. Black workers are more likely to have front-line jobs, like grocery clerks, public transit workers, warehouse and postal service workers, cleaners, healthcare workers, and childcare workers. Black workers are also less likely to have health insurance, paid sick time, or the ability to work from home.
And they’re more likely to live in neighborhoods with more air pollution, which further increases their risk of COVID-19 infection. A 2019 report found that black and Hispanic Americans live in neighborhoods with more pollution but produce less, whereas white communities are less polluted but white people produce more pollution. The Fourth National Climate Assessment states that exposure to pollution “results in adverse respiratory and cardiovascular effects, including premature deaths, hospital and emergency room visits, aggravated asthma, and shortness of breath,” conditions which in turn increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.
The economic impacts of the pandemic are also hitting black Americans harder and will likely persist far into the future.
For example, with millions of Americans filing for unemployment, more and more households are forced to dip into their savings and, given the wage gap between black and white Americans, it’s no surprise that black family have significantly less savings; less than $9,000 for black families compared to about $50,000 for white families. And, the unemployment rate for black workers has increased to 16.7% under COVID-19 while for white workers it is 14.2%.
Lower income communities and communities of color are also hit the hardest and are less able to deal with the impacts of the increasing natural disasters we’re seeing, from wildfires and hurricanes to heat waves, droughts, and sea-level rise driven by climate change. As wages have fallen and their economic mobility and power in the workplace has declined, working people are disproportionately vulnerable to these impacts. The world’s leading scientific organizations have been unambiguous that climate change is a dire and urgent threat and that the longer we delay, the stronger the action required.
The issues are well documented and their solutions are as intrinsically linked as they are. In June 2019 the BlueGreen Alliance released Solidarity for Climate Action, a historic platform to address the joint issues of climate change and income inequality. With COVID-19 worsening these crises, the vision of Solidarity for Climate Action is more important now than ever.
Finding the path forward.
Congress must act with urgency. People are continuing to get sick and die; workers are going back to work—in some cases being FORCED back to work—in wildly unsafe conditions; states are “re-opening” in ways that could plunge us further into crisis; and economic and racial inequities continue unabated. The very future of our country is at stake.
COVID-19 recovery efforts must take every step to protect frontline workers’ and vulnerable communities’ health and safety in the face of this pandemic. They must also address income inequality and climate change and have racial justice baked in at their core. Recovering from COVID-19 is going to take time and we must work to come out of this crisis with a fairer, more sustainable, and more just economy than we went in with. We’ve seen clearly just how dangerous the status quo is. Correcting this means making significant changes to all parts of our society. If we do it right, a strong economic recovery package can protect and create quality, family sustaining jobs, deliver public health and environmental benefits, address economic and racial injustice head on, and create a cleaner, stronger, and more equitable economy for all. To start the process to long-term recovery we must:
- Prioritize equitable rebuilding and investments in those workers and communities that need it most, especially low-income communities, communities of color, and deindustrialized communities. Generations of economic and racial inequality have disproportionately exposed low-income workers, communities of color, and others to low wages, toxic pollution, and climate threats. We must inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.
- Invest at scale in our crumbling infrastructure, but do it right. We must invest in our nation’s economic recovery, starting with our infrastructure, which is in a dangerous state of disrepair. From our crumbing roads and bridges, to asbestos filled schools with lead pipes—primarily located in low-income communities and communities of color. The pandemic highlighted these issues, as we’ve seen too many Americans lacking access to necessities like clean water during the public health crisis of a generation. As with all of our nation’s vital systems, racism is inherent in the failure of our infrastructure with low income communities and communities of color more likely to deal with the dangerous impacts of failing infrastructure.
We need to invest at the scale this crisis and recovery demands. However, we can’t afford to spend the level required without ensuring it supports and creates local jobs with fair wages and benefits and safe working conditions, creates economic opportunity for all people in the communities in which they reside, and meets forward-thinking environmental standards to ensure resiliency. Within the failure of our infrastructure is also the opportunity to solve multiple issues at once. By making the needed investments and enforcing strong labor, procurement, local hire, and community benefit requirements we can grow good paying jobs across the nation and invest in the communities that most need it while addressing major racial and public health concerns in our schools, hospitals, transit systems, and other vital institutions. We can’t afford to let these investments further exacerbate any of the existing crises we’re facing.
- Support and retool America’s manufacturing sector. Our manufacturing sector took a major hit during the pandemic and the sad state of our domestic supply chain was made clear. With more than 40 million Americans currently unemployed, we need to put Americans back to work when it’s safe. We can do so by making a major reinvestment in fortifying and transforming heavy industry and retooling to build more of the products, materials, and technologies of the future here—all while providing pathways to good family-supporting jobs and strong domestic supply chains. American leadership in inventing—and manufacturing—the most advanced technology of all kinds was once a cornerstone of a strong and growing middle class and a pathway for many out of poverty.We cannot cede American manufacturing jobs to our global competitors or leave our economy and communities vulnerable because we failed to be forward-thinking about boosting the sector for the short and long term.
- Rebuild the capacity of our public sector and services and provide critical long term support and protections for workers. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inadequate investments we’ve made to date in our public sector. We need to rebuild and invest in our health care systems, public health agencies, education, and community-based services to make us better prepared for disasters like COVID-19 or natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. We also must rebuild and expand the social safety net—including pensions, healthcare, and retirement security—and ensure and enforce worker and community health and safety.
Doing it right.
By making smart investments where they are most needed, ensuring that racial justice is a core principle of all we do, and rebuilding with the reality of climate change at the forefront, we can and will build a fairer, more sustainable, and just future for America.