Covid Revealed Our Flaws. Do We Have the Resolve to Fix Them?

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Like an overdue visit to the optometrist, Covid-19 has sharpened our vision and revealed some harsh truths that were long overlooked or hidden. The pandemic has further widened the U.S. wealth gap that’s existed for decades while millions have fallen even deeper into poverty and desperation.

For the poorest Americans, it has been an unmitigated disaster – with poor women and single mothers suffering disproportionately. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, low-income women were three times more likely than higher-income women to have quit a job for Covid-19 related reasons. In April 2020, at its onset, 41.2 percent of frontline workers were people of color and 17.3 percent were immigrants.

While incomes at the lower-end of the scale have been falling, those at the highest-end have been rising – further widening the burgeoning national wealth gap. According to some studies, America’s billionaires have made around $1 trillion dollars since the pandemic started.

As Covid-19 has revealed the depths of inequity in our nation, it also provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to fix it. President Joe Biden has responded with ambitious plans encompassing investments in our country’s capital and human infrastructure. It remains to be seen if those plans will pass an almost evenly divided Congress. Perhaps the President will muscle them through, or perhaps some form of bipartisan compromise will be possible.  Either way, the changes embodied in President Biden’s proposals could prove to be transformational.

Already, the national pandemic rescue program passed earlier this year exceeds in breadth and scope what was previously thought possible. It could be a catalyst for addressing the growing wealth gap and creating opportunities for more Americans to participate fully in our economy. While federal leadership and resources are essential to this effort, it will take a partnership among local governments, businesses, philanthropies, non-profits and community residents to achieve our goal of a more fair and equitable society.

Last October, in the throes of the pandemic, The Chicago Community Trust and its partners began mapping a plan for the Covid recovery with an equity lens. Our goal was to use this unprecedented opportunity to build an economy and a workforce that provides a role for everyone. Our plan, called We Rise Together, goes far beyond simply restoring lost jobs and reopening closed businesses. It’s about giving all people a stake in a growing economy.

The plan entails investing in neighborhoods that have languished for decades; helping people who live in these neighborhoods obtain quality jobs that will survive future crises; and working towards policies that will build a stronger social safety-net, so that future recessions don’t result in millions of people losing their homes and ability to feed themselves.

With input from our partners and residents of our region’s disinvested communities, We Rise Together is pursuing policies that provide real opportunities and long-term wealth-building. Plans include building the capacity of small businesses and supporting equitable job-creation; increasing the diversity of supply chains and professional service firms; offering low-interest loans for mortgages and small businesses and forgiving outstanding loans to students; and adopting equitable hiring and compensation practices throughout the region.

In expanding opportunity and full participation in our economy, We Rise Together won’t only benefit those most impacted by the current wealth gap. It will benefit all of us as we face the economic and social challenges of the future.  The more who work and pay taxes, the more wealth that’s created and the more investment that’s possible. The fewer who live in poverty and desperation, the less we will have to spend on disease, crime and other societal challenges.

Rather than displacing existing plans and programs, We Rise Together will build on them. Rather than imposing strategies on people and neighborhoods, our vision is to engage and empower them. Our goal is not to get back to where we were before the pandemic. That’s simply not good enough. The pre-pandemic economy was marked by growing inequity in wealth and opportunity. Our post-pandemic economy must make room for everyone.

Covid-19 has provided a vision test for America, and what it revealed is societal myopia. The question now is whether we’re willing to accept a prescription for a new economy that is more fair, just and equitable and sees the long-term benefits of all of us having the opportunity to realize our potential. We can settle for a future in which we’re constantly responding to crises that knock millions of people into poverty while the wealthiest get wealthier. Or we can forge an alternative future in which all of us rise together.