A stronger state safety net is part of the cure

Pandemics only exacerbate Inequalities we know too well

LIFE UNDER QUARANTINE can easily cause many of us to lose track of time. But one date we should remember is this: Today marks one month since Gov. Charlie Baker issued a declaration of emergency.

Have our state policymakers been responding with the needed urgency? Not really.

The Legislature, now rightfully in remote function, has waived the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance and allowed cities and towns to postpone local and special legislative elections (and took steps to expand voting access for new dates). These are important first steps. But without larger and more comprehensive action with an equity lens front and center, we risk leaving the most vulnerable populations—those who were already living in a state of emergency—behind.

Pandemics are not “great equalizers”: they underscore and exacerbate all of the inequalities that were already present.

We can see this in the coronavirus statistics so far, as the cases per resident in the black and brown neighborhoods of Boston are much higher than those in the white, affluent downtown neighborhoods, a phenomenon not unique to Boston. (Although the number for Asian Americans is lower, that is likely a result of the racially motivated avoidance of Chinatowns and Chinese-American-owned businesses, which has had a severe economic toll.)

The inequalities that pervade our health care system are an obvious factor, but so are the inequalities manifest in who has the privilege to work from home. Many higher-income professionals are able to do so. Grocery store clerks and janitors can’t and have to weigh the risks involved in such work against the risks of joining the growing ranks of the unemployed.

Low-income families must make daily pilgrimages to meal distribution sites—also often exposing themselves and their children to risk of coronavirus exposure on mass transit—to replace the two meals a day previously provided at schools. Formerly routine trips to the laundromat can now become risky endeavors.

Massachusetts’s assistance programs, as currently configured, are not adequate to meet this unprecedented need. Applications for SNAP benefits have increased by more than fourfold. The unemployment system has been flooded with applications, and the Department of Unemployment Assistance lacks the necessary staffing or the language proficiency to process the demand. People wait long hours on phone calls, bounced around between agencies, for insufficient levels of assistance.

Many proposals have been floated for how to address different facets of this flood of need, and to keep money flowing in our local economies: a one-time supplemental payment of Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or TAFDC, and Emergency Assistance to Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) cash assistance to beneficiaries; a universal basic income intervention; closing holes in health care coverage for the underinsured; expansion of the Unemployment Insurance benefit beyond 50 percent; supplementing the federal LifeLine program to ensure people have adequate minutes on their phone to enroll in these programs and to realistically practice social distancing; an infusion of dollars into the shelter system and Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT, a program to help people be/stay safely housed.

These are great ideas. The Legislature should choose some and act before we enter the next month of this crisis, as more than three dozen organizations from around the state have demanded.

Getting money to people as fast as possible, especially those with the most barriers and biggest challenges, will tilt us to faster and stronger recovery. To do that, implementation must reduce the bureaucratic hoops that too often prevent people from accessing necessary benefits.

And the money is there to do this. Massachusetts boasts the strongest Rainy Day Fund we have ever had, at $3.47 billion. One of the three allowed purposes for appropriations from the fund is “for any event which threatens the health, safety or welfare of the people or the fiscal stability of the commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions.” If this isn’t such an occasion, then what is?

Given the acute state of emergency facing our people and our economy in the immediate weeks, a modest draw of up to 6 percent, or about $200 million, from the $3.47 billion total in the Rainy Day Fund is entirely warranted. As many of our family members, neighbors, and fellow Bay Staters enter the fourth week of coronavirus impacts, this $200 million is not only desperately needed, but overdue.

In Massachusetts, we have the means to protect the health and welfare of our residents. The question is: Do we have the political will?

Meet the Author

Karen Y. Chen

Executive director, Chinese Progressive Association
Meet the Author

Jonathan Cohn

Co-chair of issues committee, Progressive Massachusetts
Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Horace Small

Executive director, Union of Minority Neighborhoods
Karen Chen is executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. Jonathan Cohn is issues committee chair for Progressive Massachusetts. Elena Letona is executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts. Horace Small is executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods.