Why Los Angeles County should not return to ‘normal’ after pandemic

With a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign now underway, many are hoping that Los Angeles County could soon return to its pre-pandemic normal. However, a new report from the Committee for Greater LA stresses that going back to normal is the last thing we should aim for.

The Committee for Greater LA brought together businesses, nonprofits, government officials and researchers at UCLA and USC, including the USC Dornsife Equity Research Institute, to determine how those most affected by the pandemic could be prioritized in the recovery.

Their report, titled “No Going Back,” contends that simply returning to normal would mean a slide back to precarity and poverty for many and would do little to prepare for future pandemics, which a report by IPBES, the United Nation’s biodiversity organization, argues will be more frequent and more deadly.

The current pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor, people of color, undocumented immigrants and the elderly, highlighting pre-existing issues in these L.A. communities. Cracks in social services and economic opportunities, which could be ignored prior to the pandemic, suddenly buckled livelihoods as illness and economic destitution swept the city.

“One thing that’s important to recognize is that, while the pandemic has definitely created a significant amount of inequity and economic distress in communities, we were set up for the response to play out that way,” says Edward Mu?a, senior data analyst at the Equity Research Institute. “We experienced vast amounts of income inequality prior to the pandemic and an over representation of Black, Latino and Asian Pacific American workers in essential, higher risk jobs. We’re seeing things play out the way they are now because the system was built that way.”

Prevent an eviction tsunami

Among the first things on the agenda should be tackling the looming wave of evictions, says Mu?a. An eviction moratorium is set to end in March, and between 36,000 and 120,000 households could become homeless if it’s not extended, cites the report. The average amount of back rent owed by each renter is around $7,000 in California.

Some of the responses outlined by the report include an extension of the eviction moratorium to stave off a tsunami of evictions that will worsen the existing homelessness crisis. Additionally, the federal government could arrange for a buy-out of owed rent and enable people to set up sustainable payment plans, says Mu?a.

To prevent this level of crisis in the future, the county should continue its work toward building affordable housing, according to the report. Los Angeles is roughly 500,000 units short of meeting affordable housing needs. Solutions for this include acquiring hotels and motels to turn into housing units, repurposing public facilities and public lands for housing and land banking acres on which to build apartments, and stabilizing the rental market through strategies like those proposed by Gary Painter of the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Painter suggests in his Blueprint for California Renter Recovery “a way forward where all parties, including the public sector, can be part of a solution that is desperately needed in the near future.”

Build an economy for all

COVID-19 has had a dramatic, disproportionate impact on people of color. Among those age 45 to 54, Black and Hispanic death rates are six times higher than for whites. Nearly a third of the nurses who have died from the disease in the United States were Filipino although they only make up 4% of the population.

Nationally, more than 40% of Black-owned businesses have closed, compared to 22% of U.S. businesses in general.

“We underscore in the report that you can’t get around these issues without having a specific focus lens on race. To roll out an unemployment relief program that doesn’t pay attention to the fact that over 43% of California’s Black labor force has filed for unemployment since March is one that is innately lacking,” says Mu?a.

L.A. must rebound with solutions that specifically uplift these communities, he says. For instance, the county could streamline its procurement processes to make it easier for small businesses, often owned by people of color, to apply for contracts.

Private businesses can help by diversifying their supply chains to include minority-owned vendors. Kaiser Permanente recently committed to purchasing up to $2 billion a year from businesses owned by veterans, women, people of color, disabled individuals and LGTBQ individuals. Local government can also prioritize initiatives like the recent Social Entrepreneurs for Economic Development initiative, which provided training and opportunities to entrepreneurs regardless of immigration status.

Facilitating home ownership for the Black community, which has the lowest ownership rate of any ethnic group in the county, would also help in economic recovery. Mortgage forbearance and affordable home loans help build generational wealth and would lower the staggering homelessness rates for this group. Black Angelenos make up a little less than 8% of the county’s overall population but constitute nearly 34% of its homeless.

Democratize the internet

More than 30% of children in the county lack access to a computer and high-speed internet, essential items for online schooling. The gap is particularly pronounced in Black and Latino households, where nearly 40% of children don’t have this technology. These students are falling behind their peers as schools remain online during the pandemic.

This unequal access to the internet is inhibiting educational advancement and thwarting full participation in society, argues “No Going Back,” which contends that internet access should be regarded as a civil right. The county should act as an internet service provider and offer broadband service to residents on a sliding scale. Basic computing devices should be handed out to all students enrolled in online classes.

Support all Angelenos

Undocumented immigrants make up 12% of L.A. county’s workforce and are disproportionately employed in essential jobs that carry increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Many work in food service and have lost their jobs as restaurants shutter. Nearly one in five L.A. County residents are either undocumented or live with a family member who is, so children and relatives of these workers are also affected by lost wages and illness.

While these workers pay taxes, many are not eligible for unemployment insurance or recovery checks. Without assistance, these immigrants could join the many thousands of Angelenos already living on the street, putting further pressure on public resources. “No Going Back” advocates for an ongoing, alternative form of assistance like the Angeleno Campaign, which provided funds to residents regardless of legal status.

Nearly 70% of undocumented immigrants have lived in the country for over a decade and are deeply entwined in the community. More could be done to assist these immigrants in attaining legal status. Some 764,000 immigrants are eligible for naturalization but haven’t pursued the process. Setting up virtual information clinics, lowering fees and clearing application backlogs could get more immigrants legalized in advance of the next pandemic.

However, with major budget cuts already underway, implementing the report’s recommendations could be an uphill battle.

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