COVID-19 likely to reinforce or increase African Americans’ poverty

Marginalized groups have taken the brunt of the physical and financial damage that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused in the United States.

A new article by Berkeley Public Health professor of health policy and management Lonnie Snowden and Genevieve Graaf of the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work reviews the existing literature on African American-white disparities in COVID-19 illness and risk factors and determines that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to reinforce or increase the poverty of African Americans in the United States.

Published in The Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in November 2020, the article points out that the pandemic has created “a feedback loop by which, even as African Americans’ poverty causes poor health, African Americans’ poor health will cause more African American poverty.”

Snowden and Graaf conclude that African Americans will be more likely to contract COVID-19 and experience serious illness and mortality as well as less likely to recover financially after the pandemic has ended.

This situation mirrors what happened after the “Great Recession” of the late ‘00s. In 2017, the average income of White households had rebounded to the level before the 2007-2009 recession, but African Americans’ income level had not. This put them behind even before the pandemic hit.

“African Americans have only either recently [recovered financially] or did not recover from the 2008 recession,” said Snowden. “They were way behind Whites.”

After the pandemic reached the U.S., disparities continued to increase, with the white seasonally adjusted unemployment rate peaking at 12.4%, while the African American rate peaked at 16.8%. By September 2020, unemployment rates fell to 7.0% for whites, but were 12.1% for African Americans.

Another mitigating factor has been school closures. The authors found that intergenerational poverty perpetuation in African American families becomes more likely with closing schools, leading to future economic disadvantages. During the pandemic, African American families with teens have been 2.5 times more likely to lack high-speed Internet access; these young students are less likely to complete schoolwork due to technical obstacles.

To help African Americans to recover economically more than they have from past recessions, Snowden and Graaf suggest reauthorizing and extending provisions of the now expired 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. According to the U.S. Department of Treasure, the act aimed to provide fast and direct economic aid to workers,  families, and small businesses. Snowden also suggested including rental assistance to non–home owners in the Act.

“We’re in a position now where we need to try to keep that from replicating itself and extending into the future,” said Snowden. “It’ll just play itself out again if we don’t do something to address these problems.”

Read the full paper on Springer Link.

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