Paul Thornell, Robert Raben, and Mark Hanis
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is expected to unveil a fourth installment of pandemic relief when the Senate returns the week of July 20, launching talks with the Administration and the House right before the August recess. As the Senate begins to develop its next Covid-19 package there is an opportunity to fix a glaring problem in a key element of the previously enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Four of the five members of the Act’s Congressional Oversight Commission have already been named. The individuals appointed to this critical panel are all committed, competent public servants. However, none of them are from theAfrican-American, Latino, Pacific Islander or American Indian communities, all of which have been disproportionately hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Commission was created to assess implementation of the CARES Act’s $500 billion economic stabilization program. It was also tasked with evaluating parts of the law designed to help homeowners, renters, and consumers address the financial hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Two recent Commission reports illustrate the potential effects that a lack of diverse voices can have on policy.
The Commission’s May report briefly acknowledged the significant impact on communities of color in its introduction, but none of the over 50 questions posed explicitly addressed the issues these communities face. No requests were made of the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board to explore the array of economic implications for communities or color or inquire about possible strategies to address them. The Treasury and the Fed wield powerful economic tools to manage the pandemic’s devastation on businesses, workers’ livelihoods, family savings, and consumer confidence. In the second report, released in June during social justice protests dominating the headlines and issues of diversity and racial inclusion taking center stage, the Commission offered no mention of how the economic turmoil of the pandemic touched communities of color, except for a statistic on unemployment rates. It merely reprised its questions from May with responses from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Fed Chairman Jerome Powell.
Communities of color aren’t just disproportionately struggling with the health effects of the Covid-19 induced shutdown, but with its crushing economic consequences. Black and Latino majority-owned businesses were already more at risk before the crisis. They start off with less capital than white-owned companies and have a harder time obtaining loans. They are also primarily in industries being hardest hit by the pandemic, including food services, accommodation, and retail. While there were some surprises in the lower numbers for the overall May unemployment report, African-American unemployment rose to 16.8% and the Latino unemployment rate, at 17.2%, was the highest for all races and ethnic groups for the first time ever. The June numbers told a similar story of the Black and brown workforce being hard hit by this economic crisis and not rebounding like its white counterparts.
The pandemic’s shutdown also wreaked havoc on American Indian communities many of whose economic survival is tied closely to the gaming and hospitality sectors that closed in March. Casino closures resulted in an over $4 billion loss in estimated revenue and nearly $1 billion in lost wages that devastated tribal budgets that pay for operations and social programs. In some states, Asian/Pacific Islander men experienced worse unemployment than their Black and Latino counterparts. This entire community will be harmed by the loss of the extra $600 in unemployment benefits when they expire on July 31.
A panel with a diverse set of voices could have raised concerns about the widening racial wealth gap from this economic crisis and asked what more could be done to help lessen that gap. As people of color are more likely to rent rather than own their homes, they could have raised the question about greater protections for renters in addition to the ones being considered for homeowners. And after so many individuals and small businesses had problems applying for recovery funds, the Commission could have also questioned whether minority-owned businesses will gain access to the $500 billion in lending. For these issues to be raised, it would be constructive if there were African-American, Latino, American Indian, and Pacific Islander voices in the room as part of the Commission’s work.
There is a relatively straightforward solution to address these and other concerns of communities of color. Four more members should be added to the CARES Act Commission—each appointed by the Congressional leaders as the initial four were—but with the requirement that these individuals represent the populations most negatively impacted by the Covid-19 financial crisis. The Chair of the Commission is still to be decided jointly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Serious consideration should be given to naming a diverse person. At the very least, the Commission’s top staff should be reflective of these communities.
Adding more voices to the room who bring perspectives informed by their familiarity and connection to this economic upheaval would also be a way to address this problem. Let’s hope Congress acts during the next round of Covid-19 legislation and that the public challenges them not to make the same mistake in the future.