Millions of Californians have lost work and income during the COVID-19 crisis, with low-income families, communities of color, and women bearing the brunt. The virus and its economic fallout are likely to exacerbate longstanding income inequality in California. Can policymakers pave the way for an equitable recovery? At a virtual event last Tuesday, Sarah Bohn, vice president of research at PPIC, outlined a new report that explores these complex issues, and a panel of experts offered state and local perspectives on the future of economic opportunity for Californians.
The report examines the effects of the COVID-19 downturn on California’s labor market in the context of growing income inequality. It also looks at policies that could help promote an equitable recovery and address the needs of the hardest-hit workers and regions.
Betty Yee, California state controller, characterized the current crisis as “a convergence of a lot of different factors,” from income inequality to climate change. Pointing to the gap between the growth of productivity and incomes over the past 40-plus years, she said that the pandemic has underlined “the vulnerability of our economy”—the fact that so many people work in sectors that do not pay adequate wages. “The issue of equity is hitting home,” she added.
Ashley Swearengin, president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, highlighted the impact the pandemic has had on many of her neighbors—farm and food workers, in particular. She described a few of the 16,000 calls to a hotline launched in August to support community members. “One call came from a father who stopped working because his son tested positive . . . work may not pay his time off and he needs help with his light bill, which is past due. . . . Another caller tested positive and has been quarantining in her car because she doesn’t want to expose everyone at home.”
Yee said that “this is a time for a little bit of a paradigm shift” for policymakers, and listening to local voices is key: “This is what’s going to inform the policies that will work going forward.” Pointing to the Fresno DRIVE Initiative, Swearengin stressed the importance of building “civic infrastructure” at the local and regional levels, so that underserved areas can attract and make effective use of public and private investment.
Swearengin thinks that the COVID-19 crisis—which is making people “desperate for results”—may lead to new solutions. “In my own community,” she added, “we’re really gut-checking a lot of things that for the last 20 years we have pushed and they are not working.” The way forward involves “being able to say . . . what’s wrong here? And creating space for completely new and fresh considerations.”
Yee, a history buff, hopes that “our children and grandchildren will look back on this time in history” as a moment “that is about being more inclusive, that is about sharing prosperity, where we finally are not going to leave anyone behind.”