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The Voice of the Black Community

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Pandemic strains South’s loosened social safety net for region's at-risk
COVID-19 help undercut by race and public policy
 
Published Wednesday, April 22, 2020 8:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

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The southeastern United States, which has higher rates of poverty than the rest of the United States, is less prepared to help low-income and unemployed residents deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an equal opportunity scourge, especially in the South where the health and economic hit is more pronounced in communities that lack resources to navigate job loss or access health care.


Compared to the national average, southerners are at greater risk of economic distress from coronavirus due to higher shares of elderly residents and residents with self-care or independent living difficulty, lower rates of paid sick leave coverage and weaker public benefits.


“What we know is that COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on our country, especially in the South,” said former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams, founder and executive director of the Southern Economic Advancement Project, “but we know that across the country that support is not reaching the most vulnerable of our community members. While I begin this work in the South, we understand that the South is a microcosm of a larger set of issues that face our country and in a crisis like COVID-19, we know that those who are economically vulnerable, or even more vulnerable now and less resilient.”

In a survey of COVID-19’s economic impact on families that receive federal food vouchers, an indication of poverty, SEAP found that:

• 6 out of 7 workers have lost earnings due to the pandemic, and more than a third have lost their job completely.

• Less than half are positioned to receive federal stimulus payments without risk of delay or complication.

• 55% have only a few days of food and cash.

• 70.3% report food insecurity since the coronavirus pandemic started, with 46% skipping meals and 32.5% accessing food pantries.

Among the survey respondents, 80% were women with children at home; 41% were white and 35% were black. Thirty-six percent of responses were by women of color. The survey was conducted by Propel, an organization that helps low-income people improve their financial health through technology.

In addition to increased food insecurity, at-risk communities – who have disproportionately more workers in the service industries – have difficulty accessing unemployment benefits, which are generally pay less in southern states. Federal help for the unemployed has been codified in a series of laws since the outbreak, but relief has been slow as new applicants swamp the system. Especially troublesome is the digital divide that prevents black, Latino and less-educated workers from accessing the system.

“Many states have systemically been increasing denials and making their systems harder to access those states are mostly in the South,” said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst for social insurance with the National Employment Law Project. “We've seen recipients see rates, the number of unemployed people who are actually getting a benefit, dropping to less than 10% in Florida and North Carolina recipients, is dramatically down across the South. According to the Employment and Training Administration data on erroneous denials, the denial error rate for separation reasons, in 2017 was 17.44%. Well, that error rate in 2007 was just 8%.”

Southerners, who historically are some of the nation’s poorest and least healthy people, are more likely to have difficulty navigating the pandemic, said Ali Bustamante, senior research associate at SEAP. With more conservative state government policies in the region, nonprofit and community help will have to pick up the slack.

“The South is proportionally vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic for two reasons," he said. "First, estimates show that 29 million Southern adults are at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and that's about 43% of the adults in the region are at risk, nearly three percentage points higher than the national average. This is because the South has a greater concentration of poverty, elderly persons and persons with self-care and independent living difficulties.

“To be clear, the absence of effective public assistance programs is by design. The lack of state proactive economic and health policies, coupled with the preemption of local policies such as municipal minimum wages and paid leave has been justified by debt hawkery and anti-redistributed policies as states learned during the Great Recession through the absence of early efforts to mediate.”

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