The pandemic makes America’s ugliest inequalities difficult to ignore. Though anyone can contract the virus, we haven’t all had equal reasons to fear it. Since Americans first started falling ill from COVID-19, death tolls have been steepest in the communities we exclude from our vaunted national myths. Racial disparities in mortality and life expectancy rates have persisted throughout the pandemic, NPR reported in August. A July analysis in The New York Times found that “Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors,” and were twice as likely as whites to later die from the virus.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the recession provoked by the virus shows similar racial disparities. A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation demonstrates the extent of the crisis. 31 percent of Black households with children said “they were on the verge of failing to pay their rent or mortgage.” So did 26 percent of Latino families, and 26 percent of mixed-race families. Among white households, that figure was a much lower 12 percent.
Casey Foundation researchers analyzed the results of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Surveys, conducted from September to October of this year. Its conclusions suggest a long and dangerous winter awaits beyond the illness and death caused by the coronavirus itself. In the weeks before the latest wave of COVID-19 cases struck America’s cities and states, a catastrophic share of the population was already struggling to survive. 23 percent of Black adults with children said they sometimes or always did not have enough to eat, as did 19 percent of Latino households. The figure, again, was much lower among white families; 9 percent reported food insecurity during the same time frame.
The child-care crisis may also keep many families of color from returning to work. An economic downturn coupled with restrictions on work and movement has put many child-care providers and centers out of business. Economists have already warned that vanishing child-care access could keep women out of the workforce over the long term. That exodus threatens some demographics more than others. Analyzing data from an earlier Washington University of St. Louis study, the Foundation reported that 39 percent of Latino families say they are less likely to return to work due to a lack of childcare. 31 percent of white families said the same.
The report makes a few policy recommendations, among them child allowances, the prioritization of school funding, and the expansion of unemployment insurance to cover all part-time, gig, low-wage, and student workers. Researchers also stress the importance of disaggregating data by race and ethnicity; to do otherwise, they imply, is to design policy based on an imprecise reading of the recession. And families need solutions that work. America was an unequal place when the virus found it. Government inaction made the problem worse. Without action, the lines that divide us will only harden — and over time, become more and more difficult to destroy.