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COVID-19’s Social Policy Legacy

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

Countless scholars and journalists have commented on how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the underlying inequities in our country. Black and Latinx Americans are three times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus than their white peers and twice as likely to die. The country’s highest per capita infection rates are in the Navajo Nation, compared to any state. These health disparities are symptoms of what Camara Jones calls the social determinants of equity. The key determinants are systems of power – racism, policies, norms, and institutional structures – that create disparate contexts and outcomes for different populations in any specific time and place. For example, the life expectancy for babies born into neighborhoods just a few miles apart in New Orleans can vary by 25 years.

We knew this pre-COVID. Place and race matter. But will this historic moment change how we incorporate this knowledge into social policy going forward?

“The health, economic, and social effects of this crisis will be long-lasting.”

We cannot separate the legacy of COVID-19 from the paradigm-shifting Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and more specifically, the protests following George Floyd’s murder. On June 6th, half a million Americans took to the streets to say that Black Lives Matter. We are witnessing a rising consciousness around the fact that the criminal justice system in America is fundamentally flawed.  Calls to abolish ICE or defund the police no longer sound far-fetched: 83% of Americans believe that racism is a problem in the U.S., and 74% believe that police violence against the public is a problem. In some ways, the dual effect of COVID-19 and BLM peeled away layers of denial that many Americans have held for decades about how poverty, inequality, and racism operate, generating an opening of sorts to ask the question Camara Jones has long suggested be at the heart of social policy research: “how is racism operating here?”

Post 9-11, policymakers created a new landscape.  Policies related to international travel, domestic surveillance, deportation, and much more were directly influenced by new definitions of “threats” to American “security.” COVID feels like the other big policy-altering crisis of my lifetime. During the onset of COVID, we missed a vital window to save lives and change the way we care about each other through science-informed public health policies and narratives. As a result, the health, economic, and social effects of this crisis will be long-lasting. I believe it will take a much deeper dialogue, continued resistance and demands, and a stronger shared consciousness of how inequality operates in our country for COVID to have a positive and long-lasting social policy legacy.

What might it look like if COVID’s legacy leads to greater equity, wellbeing, and justice? We must examine how all of our systems – criminal justice, health, higher education, labor, etc. – are interconnected, and then find common threads in their redesign.  I’ll start here with a quick look at the underlying beliefs that frame nearly all of our anti-poverty policies in the U.S. This is how society teaches us to pursue economic security and mobility:

  1. Work hard (for an exploitative wage, even if it isn’t enough to feed your family);
  2. Save your money (in exploitative institutions, to build individual wealth, even if your neighbors go hungry);
  3. Go to school (even if you have to take on debt and continue earning a wage that won’t feed your family after you graduate);
  4. If and when you have extra money, invest it (in more exploitative institutions, and keep it there to grow rather than using it to meet family or community needs);
  5. Ignore the fact that the systems you are moving through (labor, banking, higher education, etc., are structured to perpetuate and deepen racial and economic inequities); and
  6. You will know when you are “successful” when you have accumulated more than what you need (even if others around you don’t have enough)

“These colorblind and ahistorical economic narratives seduce us all into believing that everyone has a fair start, regardless of race and place. “

These colorblind and ahistorical economic narratives seduce us all into believing that everyone has a fair start, regardless of race and place. So many Americans want to believe that hard work and savings will help them “get ahead.” Most Americans who were born ahead also believe that hard work got them there. Moreover, our social policies reinforce these beliefs. They prioritize individual gain, discouraging us from creating caring communities that distribute resources equitably. For many of us, it takes active resistance against these hegemonic belief systems to generate, share, and allocate resources differently. Likewise, it takes active engagement in innovative thinking to see how racial disparities in COVID infection and death rates directly connect to our nation’s history of policy-driven residential segregation, racial discrimination, and segregation in housing and employment, the tax structure that determines school funding and quality, intergenerational white wealth, and much more. This active resistance and engagement is exactly what we need to create a new post-COVID social policy landscape.

We can learn from and enact healthier, more holistic frameworks. For centuries, indigenous leaders have held and spread knowledge and practices that build, sustain, and grow communities. The interconnectedness of systems and factors that determine wellbeing is an example of subjugated indigenous knowledge. I had the great honor of seeing this knowledge in action in Hawai’i, where anti-poverty practitioners prioritized resource sharing, meaningful and caring forms of labor, and connections to the land. Leaders from Hawaiian Community Assets (HCA) incorporated these values into an effective financial capability program to address homelessness and poverty in native Hawaiian communities. Acknowledging that their current social issues stem from land and resource theft, historical and cultural erasure of Hawaiian indigeneity, and colonization, HCA uplifts and centers indigenous histories, practices, and priorities in their programming. They teach families to understand credit, mortgages, and banking systems while simultaneously acknowledging the exploitative aspects of banking and encouraging families to choose how they engage with these systems from a critical standpoint and a place of power.

“Knowledge long-held by indigenous leaders and leaders of color tells us that power is at the heart of economic, racial, and health injustices.” 

HCA’s approach to protecting and building wealth and power, known as Empowerment Economics, has resonated over time with other AAPI leaders, organizers, and funders. Through practitioner networks led by National CAPACD, trainings led by HCA, and research conducted by IASP, variations of Empowerment Economics are developing in other contexts. Across settings, Empowerment Economics is a globally informed, relational approach to transforming economic security and power in communities.

I share this as just one example of work that gives me hope for countering injustices during this challenging time. Knowledge long-held by indigenous leaders and leaders of color tells us that power is at the heart of economic, racial, and health injustices. We all know this to be true, if we just pause and focus for long enough to acknowledge it. This unique COVID-19 and BLM moment has provided many more Americans with an opportunity to pause, focus on, and acknowledge power inequities.

So, if power is at the heart of economic, racial, and health injustices, it follows that social policy should prioritize a re-distribution of power and wealth along racial lines. After studying economic and racial (in)equity for over a decade, I feel confident in saying that re-distributing individual or familial wealth without an accompanying power shift will not get us far enough.  This is what Empowerment Economics suggests. Perhaps equity is too narrow of a construct for our times. My hope is that the ultimate COVID-driven re-frame, re-design, and re-boot of social policy will instead center collective wellbeing, redistribution, interconnectedness, and justice.
By Jessica Santos Director of Community-Engaged Research, IASP