Briefing for January 25-29, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

Briefing for January 25-29, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

We are struck that one of the few certainties about the coronavirus outbreak is that low-income communities and workers in low-income, service sector occupations will be disproportionately impacted — likely in devastating fashion.

One step in combatting this will be to share information about what is happening and what can be done. That’s why we are offering a daily news service summarizing relevant stories, which you can read below.

If you would like to receive a daily briefing, feel free to email to subscribe.

Briefing for January 29, 2021

Food stamp spending jumped nearly 50% in 2020:  Federal spending on the country’s largest nutrition assistance program increased by nearly 50% in 2020 amid the economic shock of the pandemic, according to newly released data from the Agriculture Department. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still known to many as food stamps, cost nearly $90 billion in fiscal year 2020, USDA said Wednesday. That’s a major jump from just over $60 billion in 2019. The massive increase in cost is a result of two major factors: Some 8 million more Americans are getting aid, and benefit levels were increased by Congress on an emergency basis last spring to help blunt the effects of widespread business and school shutdowns. There are now nearly 44 million individuals on the program, up more than 20% from about 36 million in 2019, according to the latest data.  

The federal government wants Americans to buy groceries online, but most people on SNAP can’t: The federal government has said Americans should stay home and buy groceries online, leading to a 300% explosion in online food shopping. But a majority of Americans who depend on food stamps have no choice but to shop in person because the federal government allows online shopping with SNAP benefits only in limited circumstances in 47 states. For those who are able to shop on the web, the costs can be shocking for families who barely have enough to eat in part because SNAP benefits cannot be used to pay for delivery fees or tips. Of 38 million Americans receiving food stamps, only 1.4 million have been able to purchase food online since 2019, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing SNAP recipients to shop for food on the web under a limited pilot program.  

Rural churches find creative ways to find food insecurity: From Southerly:In many rural communities, churches far outnumber grocery stores, and they often take on food distribution as part of their ministry. Hundreds of volunteers in churches across the South and U.S. sort and organize food donated directly or via local food banks to give to those without reliable access to meals, and often galvanize to assist people after natural disasters. Right now is an especially crucial time for their work: 50 million Americans may face food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, some for the first time, according to Feeding America, a secular hunger-relief organization. Religious institutions operate 62% of pantries or meal programs under Feeding America’s network of food banks and pantries, according to Kathryn Strickland, the organization’s chief network officer. In the South, churches are often one of the only institutions people trust in their community.”  
Biden’s first big COVID test could be keeping parents of school-age kids from losing it: From Politico: “President Joe Biden’s vow to reopen most schools during his first 100 days is crashing into demands of one of his party’s most powerful constituencies: teachers’ unions. And the friction is creating an early test for the Democratic Party’s commitment to following the advice of scientists when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions began bubbling up this week as Chicago teachers and city officials clashed over a plan to reopen. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insists that classrooms are safe, but teachers in the city are pushing for an expansion in vaccinations first. Now, a version of that fight is playing out nationally, as the White House tries to navigate between a growing body of science indicating that long-held fears of reopening schools may be overblown with demands from teachers for more funding and health supplies before returning to the classroom.” 

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on young people’s lives — we owe it to them to help them recover: Rebekah Fenton, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine fellow at Northwestern University and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, writes for the Washington Post: “Our nationwide New Year’s resolution should be going all in to fight the coronavirus, prioritizing the comprehensive health of everyone, including adolescents. We should all get the vaccine series as soon as it is offered, while wearing our masks, social distancing and avoiding nonessential travel until recommendations change. Adolescents have been forced to give up a crucial part of their youth to help fight the spread of coronavirus. We owe it to them to see this crisis through.” 
Huge gaps in vaccine data make it impossible to tell who’s getting the shots: As they rush to vaccinate millions of Americans health officials are struggling to collect critically important information — such as race, ethnicity and occupation — of every person they jab. The data being collected is so scattered that there’s little insight into which health care workers, or first responders, have been among the people getting the initial vaccines, as intended — or how many doses instead have gone to people who should be much further down the list. The gaps — which experts say reflect decades of underfunding of public health programs — could mean that well-connected people and health personnel who have no contact with patients are getting vaccines before front-line workers, who are at much higher risk for illness. Federal and state officials prioritized health workers plus residents and staffs of nursing homes for the first wave of shots. 
Nearly half of adults over 65 don’t have online medical accounts that could connect them to vaccines: Older adults are being prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines because they are among the most vulnerable to complications from the novel coronavirus. But they are also less likely to be using the tech tools such as online patient portals that would help notify them about vaccine availability and appointment scheduling, according to newly analyzed data from National Poll on Healthy Aging, based at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Nearly half (45%) of individuals between the ages of 65 and 80 said they had not set up an account with their health provider’s online portal system, the analysis found. 
Tiered supports offer landlords a cost-effective way to help tenants during the pandemic: The Urban Institute studied the use of tiered supports by two major landlords and found they offered tenants a range of useful services to help weather the housing crisis brought on by the pandemic. Both housing providers are providing a blend of the following services: 

  • Universal supports: Signage and safety procedures in buildings, hand sanitizer stations, coordination with resident leaders to share key messages to all residents, voter registration, and census campaigns 
  • Light-touch individualized supports: Wellness check-in calls, virtual programming, and coordinated food, personal protective equipment (PPE), and school supply delivery 
  • Intensive coordination and individualized supports: Support with managing finances and securing government assistance, case management and referrals, and COVID-19 monitoring 

Briefing for January 28, 2021

Going to bed hungry: As the nation’s unprecedented hunger crisis continues to rage, the Washington Post takes an in-depth, multi-media look at families in Pennsylvania, California, New Mexico and Maryland living with hunger, as well as the people who are trying to help them. 

Can community colleges be a post-COVID engine of economic recovery? Many of the trends and changes foreseen for the future of work — automation, displacement and the need for mid-career training — have come crashing into the present during the coronavirus pandemic. Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of Opportunity America, talked to Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity about a new study accessing how community colleges are preparing the workforce of the future. 

Community college enrollment plunges: From Teen Vogue and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project: “At community colleges across the country, enrollment rates have greatly decreased. For the fall 2020 semester, enrollment dropped by 10.1%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — a percentage that exceeds the enrollment rates for other higher-education institutions. Among freshmen, enrollment declined by a striking 13.1% compared to the previous year. Community colleges have long served as a critical gateway for disadvantaged students, offering an affordable, flexible way to earn a college degree. As low-income Americans of color continue to foot the burden of the twin public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19, the strain on community college enrollment will only get worse.” 

The economy is getting even worse for Americans with a high school diploma or less: The Washington Post looks at the troubling trend among all Americans age 25 or older. “In December 2019, 53% of these Americans with a high school education or less were employed. By December 2020, that dropped to 48%. That means that one out of every 20 has lost employment in the past year. A fifth of those losses occurred in November and December. These workers tend to be concentrated in the sort of industries that are most directly affected by government restrictions in response to COVID-19, such as eating and drinking places, construction and hotels.” 

Key states aren’t doing enough to combat vaccine hesitancy: Though African Americans are being hospitalized for COVID-19 at more than triple the rate of white Americans, wariness of the new vaccine is higher in the Black population than in most communities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted communities of color as a “critical population” to vaccinate. But ProPublica found little in the way of concrete action to make sure that happens. It will be up to states to make sure residents get the vaccine, but ProPublica reviewed the distribution plans of the nine states with the most Black residents and found that many have barely invested in overcoming historic mistrust of the medical establishment and high levels of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community. Few states could articulate specific measures they are taking to address the vaccine skepticism. And it could be hard to track which populations are getting the vaccine. While the CDC has asked states to report the race and ethnicity of every recipient, along with other demographic information like age and sex, the agency doesn’t appear ready to apply any downward pressure to ensure that such information will be collected. 

Rural providers get creative with vaccine delivery but suffer from lack of supply: Rural providers are using self-contained mobile clinics, vaccination vans and even seaplanes to try to get COVID vaccines to hard-to-reach residents. But lack of vaccine supply is a major hurdle for putting their plans into action. 

Most nursing homes say they won’t be able to stay open another year because of COVID costs: From The 19th: “The United States recorded its first COVID-19 death in February 2020 as the virus swept through a Washington nursing home. Within one year, the country has reported more than 136,000 coronavirus deaths linked to long-term care facilities — more than one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the country. Now, the nursing home industry faces a financial crisis. About 90% of nursing homes are operating at a loss or less than a 3% profit margin, and more than 65% said they will be forced to close within the year due to overwhelming pandemic-related costs, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living.” 

Most nursing home workers in the D.C. area don’t want the COVID vaccine: A large percentage of nursing home workers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have declined to take the coronavirus vaccine, officials say, presenting a major challenge in the region’s plans to protect its most vulnerable residents. Nursing home workers were first offered the vaccine in late December and early January, along with residents of long-term care facilities and other health-care workers. Their wariness, providers and union representatives say, is fueled by online misinformation about the vaccine and historical mistrust of the medical system of which they are a part. 

Biden could repay Black women supporters by canceling student debt: From Facing South: “The critical role that Black women played in the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and two Democratic senators from Georgia, taking control of the body away from Republicans, has been well-documented. Black women organizers in Georgia and elsewhere across the South and nation dedicated years of hard work to fighting rampant voter suppression and turning out the voters that made those victories possible. Now Black women are asking what the Biden administration intends to do to pay them back. In a viral Tweet sent just days before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, offered a suggestion: If the Biden administration wants to thank Black women, it needs to cancel student debt — all of it.” 

Briefing for January 27, 2021

U.S. sees sharpest rise in poverty since the 1960s: The U.S. recorded its sharpest spike in the poverty rate since the 1960s, with 8 million Americans being added to the government designation of poor by the end of 2020. The U.S. poverty rate rose by 2.4 percentage points during the final months of 2020 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and lingering economic stagnation. Economists from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame said the nation saw the largest annual increase in poverty in nearly 60 years. Black Americans were hit the hardest during this time period. The poverty rate for Black Americans jumped by 5.4 percentage points, meaning that about 2.5 million more Black individuals are now considered poor by official government classification. The overall U.S. poverty rate, according to this latest study, sat at about 11.8% in December 2020. 
White people getting vaccinated at higher rates than Black, Latino Americans: Black and Latino Americans are receiving the COVID19 vaccine at significantly lower rates than white people — a disparity that health advocates blame on the federal government and hospitals not prioritizing equitable access. A CNN analysis of data from 14 states found vaccine coverage is twice as high among white people on average than it is among Black and Latino people. The analysis found that on average, more than 4% of the white population has received a COVID-19 vaccine, about 2.3 times higher than the Black population (1.9% covered) and 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population (1.8% covered). 
COVID safety lapses abound at U.S. schools: From Kaiser Health News: “President Joe Biden’s COVID response proposes $130 billion to improve school safety, offers federal guidance for making schools safer and improves workplace protections to safeguard teachers and other workers from COVID. This comes after many school districts and states holding in-person classes have ignored recommendations from public health officials or written their own questionable safety rules — creating a tinderbox where COVID can sicken and kill. A KHN analysis of federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration data found more than 780 COVID-related complaints covering more than 2,000 public and private K-12 schools. But those pleas for help likely represent only a small portion of the problems, because a federal loophole prevents public school employees from lodging them in 24 states without their own OSHA agencies or federally approved programs for local and state employees. Still, the complaints filed provide a window into the safety lapses: Employees reported sick children coming to school, maskless students and teachers less than 6 feet apart, and administrators minimizing the dangers of the virus and punishing teachers who spoke out.” 
Rural crisis triggers call for Biden rural czar: The Biden administration is facing growing pressure to appoint a rural envoy within the White House to oversee a national strategy to uplift rural communities facing severe health and economic challenges. Members of Congress and advocates are making the case that the problems plaguing rural regions exacerbated by the pandemic run so deep that a coordinated federal response is critical — a move they argue would speed up the nation’s economic recovery and boost Biden’s popularity among voters in red states. The envoy would work closely with the executive branch, especially the Department of Agriculture, which has offices in nearly every county in the U.S. “I certainly think there has to be a big emphasis on developing rural America,” former Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear told POLITICO. “It has to come from the White House.” 
Biden’s proposed WIC investment could improve maternal and child health, reduce racial disparities: Zoe Neuberger of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities argues that the $3 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children included in the Biden administration’s COVID relief proposal could be transformative for the program. Among the new activities the money could help support, according to Neuberger: 

  • Building a single online entry point where a family in any state could start a WIC application that would be routed to their local clinic to see if they are eligible. 
  • Ensuring that Medicaid, SNAP, and WIC data systems can readily share data to identify families that are eligible for WIC but not enrolled. 
  • Facilitating collaboration between WIC agencies and community health partners, including health care providers, social services programs, and early childhood learning and care providers to conduct outreach to potential WIC participants. 
  • Creating a state innovation fund to help states develop and implement innovative service delivery models, customer-facing digital tools, partnerships with health care or social service providers, or outreach campaigns. 

How cities can fill in the gaps in vaccine communication: Quartz looks at efforts in Chicago to spur more vaccinations in communities of color and low-income communities: “Already, less affluent communities across the country —which are disproportionately made up of minorities — have suffered more at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. When these same communities don’t see their interests and needs reflected in state and federal vaccine distribution plans, it increases the distrust fostered by hardships baked into society. So far, the federal government hasn’t effectively reached these communities with its communication efforts. Instead, community leaders are picking up the slack.” 

Briefing for January 26, 2021

A New Deal for Housing Justice: The Housing Playbook Project, an effort led by Community Change with support from the Ford Foundation, aims to reassert the federal role in housing in ways that fundamentally reframe and reimagine that role to be centered on racial equity and opportunity. The project will continue to engage a broader set of stakeholders to amplify the housing justice narrative and the importance of bolder federal action to address the housing crisis through print and digital media stories. New Deal for Housing Justice is the result of the input, expertise, and lived experience of the many collaborators who participated in the process. The recommendations presented come from more than 400 ideas shared by grassroots leaders and advocates.  

Four lessons for how cities can advance equitable transportation during the pandemic and beyond: Four key transportation strategies for cities, as outlined by the Urban Institute

  • Policymakers too often prioritize roads and highways at the expense of more-needed infrastructure. These decisions perpetuate structurally racist policies that have decreased access to jobs and services for Black, Indigenous and people of color. 
  • During the pandemic, many areas have had to reduce funding for equitable transportation, which hurts the frontline essential workers who need it the most. 
  • Equitable public transit should not only include increasing funding for public transit but also changing how we fund it. 
  • Engaging community leaders and residents from the start can create more equitable, better policy outcomes.  

How Biden can advance rights for marginalized groups: The Washington Post Editorial Board highlights the need for more civil legal assistance. “A 2018 survey commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that a third of U.S. households faced family, debt or housing problems that risked entangling them in the civil legal system; many cannot afford a lawyer. Some states and localities have stepped in to provide legal assistance for low-income people in such high-stakes cases. A handful of major cities have done so for tenants facing eviction, and similar legislation is under consideration in the Maryland legislature. But the hodgepodge of policies and laws is a far cry from a safety net. The Biden administration could advance the cause of justice through a concerted, high-profile push to make legal advice and aid more widely available to those who cannot secure it on their own. That would be a critical step toward repairing the widening chasm between haves and have-nots in America.” 

Biden to address discrimination against Asian-Americans during pandemic:President Biden is expected to use his executive authority this week to disavow racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans, specifically targeting anti-Asian animus connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. This action is expected on Tuesday, multiple people familiar with the plan told CBS News. The directives, which may take the form of an executive order or a presidential memo, are expected to be part of a package of executive actions focusing on “equity,” according to two people familiar with the plans. The other administrative actions are expected to focus on Tribal governments, fair housing, and private prisons. The Biden administration has told outside groups it is also preparing measures on voting rights.  

America’s other front line: From The New York Times: “Kerri Lopez-Howell has spent the past year pivoting. Before the pandemic, her nonprofit, the Sunnyside Foundation, distributed education grants for the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz. In March, it refocused its efforts to distribute relief funds to over 2,000 low-income families in the area, a coronavirus hot spot in the state. And in the weeks since the $900 billion stimulus package was signed into law, she’s turned her attention to the families that will still struggle to get federal relief. Ms. Lopez-Howell is part of America’s other pandemic front line — of direct service providers who have extended critical relief to communities during the eight months that a Republican-led Senate failed to pass an additional stimulus bill, and now as President Biden proposes a $1.9 trillion emergency relief package.” 

Seattle City Council calls for $4 per hour pandemic pay boost for grocery workers: The Seattle City Council, citing the increased risk that grocery workers have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, is seeking to give them a $4 per hour pay boost for the remainder of the pandemic. The new legislation would require large grocery stores to give the pay boost to retail workers who are covered by Seattle’s minimum wage law as long as the city remains in a civil emergency due to the pandemic. Mayor Jenny Durkan declared the pandemic an emergency on March 3 of last year. The legislation says the City Council intends to reconsider the pay boost after four months, but that is nonbinding. It would apply to grocery companies with more than 500 employees worldwide and to stores larger than 10,000 square feet. It would not apply to convenience stores or farmers markets. 

Rather than a coronavirus baby boom, it looks like a baby bust: Several states that keep track of births in near-real-time — as well as some hospital systems contacted by NBCLX — recorded significant drops in Dec. 2020 birthrates, compared to the same period from one year earlier. That includes Florida (down 8% from Dec. 2019); Ohio (down 7%); and Arizona (down 5%). The most significant social distancing measures went into place across much of the U.S. in mid-March. Most babies conceived after mid-March would start being born in late December. “This is a bad situation,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. “The declines we’re seeing now are… pretty substantial.” 

Briefing for January 25, 2021

Surge of student suicides pressures Nevada to reopen schools: From The New York Times: “The reminders of pandemic-driven suffering among students in Clark County, Nev., have come in droves. Since schools shut their doors in March, an early-warning system that monitors students’ mental health episodes has sent more than 3,100 alerts to district officials, raising alarms about suicidal thoughts, possible self-harm or cries for care. By December, 18 students had taken their own lives. The spate of student suicides in and around Las Vegas has pushed the Clark County district, the nation’s fifth largest, toward bringing students back as quickly as possible. This month, the school board gave the green light to phase in the return of some elementary school grades and groups of struggling students even as greater Las Vegas continues to post huge numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Superintendents across the nation are weighing the benefit of in-person education against the cost of public health, watching teachers and staff become sick and, in some cases, die, but also seeing the psychological and academic toll that school closings are having on children nearly a year in. The risk of student suicides has quietly stirred many district leaders, leading some, like the state superintendent in Arizona, to cite that fear in public pleas to help mitigate the virus’s spread.” 
Vaccine rollout leaves seniors confused about where to get shots: Over a month into a massive vaccination program, most older Americans report they don’t know where or when they can get inoculated for COVID-19, according to a poll released Friday. Nearly 6 in 10 people 65 and older who have not yet gotten a shot said they don’t have enough information about how to get vaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey. Older Americans are not the only ones in the dark about the inoculation process. About 55% of essential workers — designated by public health officials as being near the front of the line for vaccinations — also don’t know when they can get the shots, the survey found. Surprisingly, 21% of health workers said they are unsure about when they will get vaccinated. Black and Hispanic adults, as well as those in low-income households, are among the groups struggling most to find vaccine information. Within each of those groups, at least two-thirds said they do not have enough information about when they can get vaccinated, the survey found. 
In Los Angeles, virus ravages overcrowded dwellings: From The New York Times: “Los Angeles may not have the population density of New York, may not have as many skyscrapers or high-rise apartment buildings or jam-packed subways, but the county does have a higher percentage of overcrowded homes — 11%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — than any other major metropolitan area in America… It is this Los Angeles, of tight-knit families, of streets packed with food vendors from Central America and Mexico, of encampments of homeless residents, where the virus has spread ferociously, bringing so much sickness and death… Perhaps nowhere else in America can the unequal toll of the virus be felt more dramatically than in Los Angeles, where suburban sprawl and freeways demarcate the neighborhoods of the haves and the have-nots. And now that the virus is coursing through the city’s densest neighborhoods, it has underscored the crisis in economic inequality and housing affordability that, even before the pandemic, was one of the region’s most pressing issues.” 
Congressional Democrats drafting plan to give parents at least $3,000 per child in Biden aid package: The Washington Post reports: “Senior Democratic lawmakers are moving to fulfill President Biden’s desire to expand the child tax credit by drafting legislation that would direct the IRS to send recurring monthly payments to tens of millions of American families, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share knowledge of the internal discussion. Under one draft of the plan being discussed, the IRS would be tasked with depositing checks worth $300 every month per child younger than 6, as well as $250 every month per child age 6 to 17. That would amount to $3,600 over the course of the year for young children, as well as $3,000 a year for older children, the officials said. Unlike with the stimulus checks, the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers are hoping to make these child benefits a permanent government program that would continue in future years, according to three senior Democratic officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. The current proposal calls only for the expanded benefit to be enacted for one year, after which Democrats widely hope political pressure will force Congress to extend them.” 
How the new COVID relief plan really could cut child poverty in half: President Joe Biden has said his $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan would lift 5 million kids from the ranks of the poor and cut the child poverty rate in half. That would be the biggest child-poverty reduction in recent history, according to some experts who study the social safety net. But its scope isn’t far-fetched and may prove even more substantial if Biden’s plan is fully enacted, they said. Overall, the plan — which includes additional stimulus checks, tax breaks and enhanced unemployment benefits — may have the greatest impact on Black and Hispanic families. 
Five ways Biden can help rural America: The Conversation offers 5 ways the Biden administration can help rural America thrive and reduce the urban-rural divide

  • Get high-speed internet to the rest of rural America 
  • Help local governments avoid going broke 
  • Rein in big agriculture 
  • Pursue broad racial justice in rural America 
  • Focus on the basics 

Black doctors group takes aim at vaccine hesitancy: From STAT: “In September, after the Food and Drug Administration authorized certain COVID-19 treatments seemingly based more on presidential puffery than on clinical data, some physicians decided to take matters into their own hands. Specifically, the National Medical Association, a professional society of African American doctors, formed its own in-house FDA to vet the data when the official one seemed not to be. At first, the task force was framed as a stand-in — another instance in the long history of Black leaders stepping in where the government had failed. And eventually, its members did review the results and endorse the emergency authorizations for both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. But they’ve moved beyond mere recommendations. They’ve also taken on the slower, more painstaking work of building and maintaining patients’ trust in these vaccines. As Rodney Hood, one of the physicians on the NMA task force, put it, ‘We realize that Black people are at the highest risk for coronavirus but the least likely to want to take the vaccine, so we’re trying to reverse that.’”

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