URBAN AGENDA: Economic Inequities Grow As COVID-19 Recession Takes Hold

David R. Jones, Esq., President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York | 9/3/2020, midnight
The coronavirus crisis revealed deep fissures in New York City and across our society. COVID-19 showed that when we say ...
David R. Jones Contributed

The coronavirus crisis revealed deep fissures in New York City and across our society. COVID-19 showed that when we say inequity, it means something more than money or people struggling to get ahead. It speaks to social and economic injustices and persistent racial disparities in health care, wealth, housing, employment and wages.

The shock of the pandemic and the federal government's halting response to it have deepened pre-existing problems in the economy. The early phases of the crisis brought attention to people of color who disproportionately make up the most vulnerable and least compensated hourly employees. We celebrated them as heroes and essential workers.

A new study of the wage and employment disparities reveals the magnitude and nature of the economic inequity faced by Black and Latinx workers. The data compiled by the Center for an Urban Future paints an alarming picture of people of color in New York City underrepresented in a broad range of industries and on the wrong side of wage gaps – and that was before the coronavirus recession wiped out tens of millions of American jobs.

The findings match up with new data from the U.S. Census Bureau that reveals families of color are also disproportionately experiencing the negative social, economic, and mental health effects of the coronavirus crisis. Figures from the Economic Policy Institute also show that job losses are hitting Black workers and their families especially hard.

New York City and state lawmakers must address this disparity head on to ensure an equitable and inclusive economic recovery. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged he will deal with historic inequities in rebuilding the city’s economic system after the coronavirus pandemic with an emphasis on fostering an inclusive recovery. The mayor appointed his wife, Chirlane McCray, to lead a coronavirus racial disparity task force.

This is not going to be easy. The newest data suggests the problem is deeper and more dire than anyone anticipated. We must rally public agencies and private industry. We must start with a bucket of public policies, such as expanded paid leave, and make sure that people have access to safe and affordable childcare, affordable housing and training programs that provide a real pathway to work. Keeping our bus and subway system affordable when the economy bounces back is also crucial. That means maintaining funding half-priced transit fares for the working poor through Fair Fares. We must fix some of the big distortions in our economy that squeeze out small businesses. And we must make the tax law more progressive so NYC government is not so starved of its capacity to act.

We cannot afford to give lip service or simply look the other way, because Wall Street is generating record earnings. There are three main groups of workers in the COVID-19 economy: those who have lost their jobs and face economic insecurity; those who are classified as essential workers and, as a result, face health insecurity; and those who are able to continue working from the safety of their homes. Unfortunately, black workers are more likely to be in the first group and less likely to be found in the last.

The Center for an Urban Future study found that Black New Yorkers held a shockingly small share of the jobs in a wide array of well-paying city industries. The lack of representation spans not just jobs in finance and technology, but in creative fields, construction, business services, doctor's offices and manufacturing. The study showed that Blacks comprise just seven percent of the city's work force in advertising, seven percent in the securities industry, eight percent in publishing, nine percent in computer systems design (the largest field within the tech sector), nine percent in motion pictures and video, and 13 percent in legal services.

The study also found significant income gaps between Black and White workers in nearly every industry. Again, the gaps were not just in just high-paying fields, but also middle-wage jobs at places like department stores, the U.S. Postal Service, warehouses and storage facilities, and beauty salons. For instance, Black workers earned more than their White counterparts in just 12 of the nearly 140 industries analyzed for the study; the lion’s share were paid less than $39,000 annually. In 33 other industries, the gap in median incomes for Black and White workers was less than $10,000. In the remaining 92 industries, the income gap increased to more than $10,000.

We all thought COVID-19 was an equal opportunity scourge. Turns out the opposite is true: The coronavirus is not the “great equalizer” politicians and pundits believed. On the contrary, inequality has only worsened during the pandemic. People of color have suffered the greatest loss of life and more than their share of economic hardship.

Without bold, prompt policy action, people of color in New York City will struggle to recover, and they will be in an even more precarious position when the next crisis arises.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.