What’s the Key to an Equitable COVID-19 Recovery in DC?

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The greater DC region is still experiencing the pandemic’s lingering ramifications. Workers in certain sectors, often those with lower incomes, were more likely to be affected by the pandemic-driven economic downturn. And because of more than a century of racist policies and practices in employment, health care, housing, and wealth-building opportunities, people of color have borne the greatest share of the crisis’s health and economic effects—widening racial and ethnic disparities that existed long before 2020.

As local governments in the region relax some restrictions (PDF) established to prevent COVID-19’s spread, decisionmakers are increasingly considering how the DC region can recover from the pandemic while advancing equity and supporting communities.

Recently, the Urban Institute developed six memos for the DC Council that highlight local and national best practices to help guide an equitable recovery. They underscore that cross-sector, intentional effort is needed to correct inequities of the past and present, and the pandemic recovery is an opportunity to right historical wrongs and build a more equitable DC. Leaders in the following areas can develop plans based on these evidence-based best practices and recommendations.

Education

Although academic achievement is a primary goal of the DC education system, the health and well-being of students and staff are paramount to an equitable pandemic recovery.

To improve student learning outcomes, the DC education system can consider the following:

  • offer high-dosage, high-impact tutoring
  • prioritize students with disabilities and English language learners by offering regular assessments and connecting them with appropriate supports
  • use Medicaid to expand mental and physical health care for eligible students
  • continue strategies like universal virus testing and masking to support the health of students and staff in schools
Small business

The pandemic presented challenges for small businesses, especially those in the food, accommodation, and hospitality sectors. Recognizing and eliminating race and gender gaps in both business ownership and revenue should be priorities.

Small businesses are also key providers of local jobs and economic development. To increase access to capital for small businesses, DC could consider strategies to strengthen loan offerings and grants available to small businesses, particularly small businesses owned by Black or Latinx people and by women and small businesses in specific DC wards.

Employment

The unemployment rate is higher in DC than the national average (6.6 percent compared with 4.8 percent), and during the peak of the pandemic, it increased to 11.1 percent, with higher unemployment rates for Black and Latinx workers.

To improve the labor market and economy, DC could engage workers in shaping workforce recovery and provide supports for new and reentering workers. This involves meetings, surveys, and focus groups, which can inform the city’s workforce efforts. Focusing on preparation for good jobs while supporting efforts to improve job quality is critical. Employers are an essential partner in these efforts.

Local revenue

Though policies like baby bonds and property tax relief set DC apart from most jurisdictions, the following additional reforms could make DC’s revenue system more just:

  • Fiscally responsible tax cuts, like DC’s recent expansion of its earned income tax credit, could help those hurt by the pandemic, with relatively low long-term revenue cost.
  • The city could use one-time federal funds to respond to the public health emergency, replace lost tax revenue, or invest in infrastructure.
  • Reforming fines and fees, which disproportionately affect people with low incomes and people of color, could help promote equity by reducing the disparate effects of collateral measures on residents.
Transportation, housing, and infrastructure

To reduce the pandemic’s negative effects on transportation (such as service interruptions and longer commute times) and to increase access, DC can consider leveraging new rail and bus projects to target the needs of priority residents (commuters with incomes were more likely to use public transit to commute to work). Doing so would increase commuter trains’ frequency and availability for residents who need them most.

To address pandemic-induced housing inequities, DC can improve the quality of public and assisted housing. Public housing provides stable, affordable housing for 7,000 DC residents. About 90 percent of the city’s public housing residents are Black, so the ability to ensure quality, safe public housing is both a health issue and a racial equity issue.

Key potential areas of infrastructure investment include water, stormwater, tree coverage, broadband, and civic infrastructure.

Social safety net

DC leaders can harness federal recovery funds to improve economic and racial inclusion for historically excluded populations and demonstrate how a local government can address the fundamental inequity of the American safety net. By integrating services for safety net users across DC departments, the city can use recovery funding to coordinate strategically for poverty reduction. DC leaders could also right historic wrongs by welcoming safety net users as partners with seats at tables of power, peer-to-peer worker jobs, roles in evaluation, and adequate compensation for the time they spend shaping and advancing mutual goals. 

Creating a more equitable and just society in the aftermath of the pandemic will require intentional efforts. DC has many good policies and programs already and can double down on making those efforts more robust and impactful.

By examining policies and programs with an equity lens—one focused on the socioeconomic, racial, and other disparities established over many decades—DC can weave approaches that reinforce each other and create more equitable results for everyone.


The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

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