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Report explores how public policies failed Black, Latino Chicagoans during COVID-19

Report Cover

A new report issued today from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy analyzes how national and local policies related to health care, mental health care, housing, child care and education, and social assistance failed to meet the needs of Chicago’s Black and Latino residents and contributed to the health disparities in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

The report, “Deadly Disparities in the Days of COVID-19: How Public Policy Fails Black & Latinx Chicagoans,” summarizes feedback gained through interviews with government officials, epidemiologists, health care providers, and residents of Chicago’s Albany Park, Austin and Little Village neighborhoods. According to the researchers, these communities were specifically sampled because of their racial, socioeconomic and immigrant composition, as well as for being areas that were targeted by the city for additional city resources due to high COVID-19 infection and death rates.

Inequities in COVID-19 outcomes were not surprising, nor were they ignored, according to the authors.

“Tremendous assistance has been extended by federal, state and local governments to address health and racial disparities associated with the pandemic, but COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on lower-income, Black and Latino Chicagoans due to preexisting racial and class inequities that the new policies either didn’t address or couldn’t overcome,” said report principal investigator and co-author Claire Decoteau, UIC professor of sociology.

The report highlights four reasons for the disconnect between policies and residents’ experiences and needs during the pandemic:

  • Low-income and working-class Chicagoans did not have a safety net to rely on during the pandemic.
  • While COVID-19 has been treated as a health crisis and addressed through a series of public health strategies, the pandemic was not solely experienced as a medical crisis by the residents interviewed.
  • The COVID-19 response prioritized middle-class Americans and the protection of the economy over keeping the vulnerable safe.
  • The social assistance made available during the pandemic did not meet existing needs and required extensive bureaucratic proof.

In relation to the latter highlight, respondents found reactive financial and housing support were too late for residents who continued to work in vulnerable conditions in an attempt to contend with their housing and financial insecurity.

“Because the government did not design policies to keep poor people safe, including canceling rent, offering paid sick leave and work protections, providing cash assistance, and offering free medical treatment across hospital systems, poor people were forced to expose themselves to dangerous infectious situations at work, in public spaces and at home,” the researchers said.

The report includes suggestions for how public policies could have better met the needs of the residents who were interviewed. Among the recommendations for improving Black and Latino residents’ access to resources and support are:

  • Providing cash assistance to working-class people who needed to take unpaid sick leave from work and quarantine housing to the working-class when family members became ill.
  • Expanding funding to Federally Qualified Health Centers at a level that will allow them to expand their capacity to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
  • Providing additional resources and alternative initiatives to support people with mental illnesses.
  • Investing in affordable housing programs that can maintain, create and expand the number of affordable housing units in the city well beyond the 120,000-unit shortfall that was identified before COVID-19.
  • Given the precarious character of working-class jobs and the racial wealth gaps that exist in the U.S., public policies such as mandated paid family leave, universal basic income, free tuition for community college and student debt forgiveness would be important financial support systems for U.S. households like the Black and Latino families interviewed for the report.
  • Collectively, the child care and schooling crises during the pandemic have made it clear that there is a lack of key supports for families and young people across the board and that some families and some young people are more likely to feel the consequences of these gaps. Paid family leave and free, quality pre-K programs would be invaluable to Black and Latino working parents and should be a priority.
  • Similarly, support for public broadband internet, deeper investment in K-12 education and similar policies would temper the vast inequities that played out during the pandemic.
  • U.S. social assistance policies need to be broadened to be more inclusive, comprehensive and robust. Creating policies that meet the needs of society’s most vulnerable members, including those that are undocumented, will be essential in order to confront and move beyond this pandemic.

“In this report, Chicago becomes both a lens for assessing the federal approach to COVID-19, as well as a means of auditing Chicago-specific policies and their successes and weaknesses,” Decoteau said.

If there was a bright spot during the pandemic it was when residents shared resources and support with their neighbors, sometimes in coordination with more formalized programs.

“Extended networks of support amongst Black and Latinx Chicagoans worked to fill gaps in state support. Residents built on long traditions of organizing among themselves to support vulnerable neighbors and sometimes built new organizations to meet new needs,” the researchers said.

Findings from the report will be the subject of two virtual panel conversations hosted by IRRPP from noon-1:30 p.m. Dec. 1, and 6-7:30 p.m. Dec. 9.

Panelists for the Dec. 1 event are UIC researchers Claire Decoteau, Dave Stovall, Linda Rae Murray, Anna Guevarra and Nik Theodore. Participants in the Dec. 9 panel include Decoteau and Dr. Wayne Giles of UIC, Dr. David Ansell of RUSH University Hospital, Arturo Carrillo of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Debra G. Wesley of Sinai Health System and Danae Kovac of HANA Center.

Co-sponsors of the panels are Chicago Community Trust, UCAN Chicago and Chicago African Americans in Philanthropy.

Report co-authors include UIC graduate students Fructoso Basaldua, Cynthia Brito and Cal Lee Garrett, and Iván Arenas, associate director for community partnerships at the institute.

Support for the research and report was provided by the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy, the Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement, and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at UIC.