Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity recently spoke with Lili Farhang, Co-Director of Human Impact Partners, on their work related to economic security, and how it connects to the international outbreak of COVID-19, most commonly known as coronavirus. Human Impact Partners, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California, researches and advocates for policy and systems changes to advance health equity. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Read the full Q&A.
What are some of the ways that the coronavirus is going to disproportionately impact low-income communities?
The key contextual factors are that we don’t have a vaccine or treatment interventions available. In the absence of such medical interventions that could keep people from getting sick or that treat people when they get sick (i.e., like with the flu), that means that control of COVID-19 is 100% wholly dependent on people’s ability to comply with recommendations to isolate themselves from others. The primary recommendation that public health officials are giving people who are sick, or who may be exposed to others who are sick, is “social distancing” or staying home when you’re sick.
But people earning lower incomes, who predominantly work in the service sector, don’t receive the same kinds of employer and policy supports that folks earning higher incomes have: specifically, paid sick days, the ability to work from home and telecommute, and the ability to have a flexible schedule. Our service sector economy is structured so that in order to get paid, you have to show up at McDonald’s to serve food or you have to show up in someone’s home to provide home care. Or you have to show up to be a baggage handler at an airport. These are occupations with much lower rates of job-protected sick leave, and so it means that those workers have to choose between going to work sick and not complying with social distancing recommendations or losing wages to be able to stay home. This is the primary pathway by which many lower-income people, and lower wage workers in particular, will be affected.
What about medical care and childcare issues? How will people get tested if they don’t have health insurance?
If you have high deductibles or you don’t have health insurance, as is more common with lower-wage workers, these are impediments to getting tested and treated for COVID-19. Should schools close, unless you live in a community with relatives and supports that you can draw on, low-wage workers will not have the discretionary income to pay others to take care of their children if they have to go to work. As a society, we don’t make widespread childcare subsidies available, we don’t have emergency funds set up to provide for childcare, and we don’t have emergency places for people to take their kids to. Again, these are examples of gaps in our political and social system that really hinder our ability to limit widespread transmission.
Are there other impacts you would note?
People of color are disproportionately in low-wage occupations because of a long history of discrimination and systemic bias that limited who had access to education and wealth-building opportunities. It’s not a coincidence that those low-income workers most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also people of color who are disproportionately represented in service sector occupations.
What are some of the potential policy interventions that could help? It seems unlikely that Congress will instantly pass paid leave legislation, so if I am a city council member or mayor, what are the things that would help?
It would be ideal if Congress could actually pass the Healthy Families Act, which is a paid sick leave law that’s been up there for years and years. But they could establish emergency paid leave funds. We could extend our food stamps program. We could increase the childcare subsidy that people get through their federal and state taxes. It would be helpful to ensure that part-time workers, self-employed workers, gig workers, workers who don’t have these benefits, would be able to have access to what they need to be able to halt the spread of COVID-19. Some municipalities and states do have paid sick leave laws on the books — California and New York City, for example. These laws could be strengthened and widened. We could suspend the Public Charge rule and the threat of ICE detentions and deportations that may inhibit many undocumented immigrants from seeking care and support.
On the employer side, there are also things state and local governments can do to help small employers, who are also going to be disproportionately impacted. Maybe employers get access to emergency funds as well, or some kind of tax relief if they can show how they supported their workers complying with recommendations? Could state family and medical leave laws, like our paid family leave program in California, be repurposed to cover the costs of social distancing? I don’t know the answers to how you implement these — but I have faith that if there is a will to support people through this acute crisis, then we can figure out how to make it happen.
On the testing question, you could set up free testing clinics but there’s not enough tests right now.
It’s true that there aren’t enough tests right now, but there are examples of policies emerging that will make getting tested more affordable to those who need it. New York state, for example, is saying it will cover the cost of testing and medical care for people with coronavirus who don’t have coverage. This issue can and should absolutely be addressed since it behooves our health care system — hospitals, insurance companies, providers — to do everything possible to ensure that the system is not overloaded and can focus on critical cases.
If I am a service worker or living paycheck to paycheck, are there things that would help me and my family prepare?
Understanding what your rights are locally and statewide is important. If you’re part of a union, try to understand what support the union may be able to provide for you. If you’re not connected with a union, there may be worker centers in municipalities that might be able to help you make sense of what your rights are. This is a moment when grassroots organizing can really shine a light on why we need structural interventions: workers being able to hold their employers accountable for the support they are failing to provide.
This is one of those moments when people can see how we’re ALL affected when some of us don’t have social and economic protections. It’s a moment that shows how all of our wellbeing is wrapped up in each other’s wellbeing, and that a safety net doesn’t just protect some of us, but all of us.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.