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In the Midst of the Pandemic, the Economy Remains a Major Concern

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By the Center for Public Policy at VCU Wilder School
February 28, 2021

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare and health related policies are naturally at the forefront of most minds. However, other issues such as the economic impact of the pandemic are also top concerns. As the pandemic continues, and as we see a push toward vaccination and reopening, many are wondering if and how the economy will be able to recover.

Multiple times each year, the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, conducted by the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, provides insight into the perspectives of Virginians on current events and pressing issues. Polls conducted over the past year have examined several issues related to the economy, and how Virginians feel about the current economic situation. Key findings include:

  • The July 2020 poll (n=838) found that the economy had been the most important issue to likely voters in the presidential election, followed by healthcare and COVID-19. When considering demographic breakdowns, the economy had a similar level of importance to all demographic groups (e.g. gender, political affiliation and race). However, women, Democrats and minorities were more likely to say healthcare and COVID-19 were more important.
  • The Winter 2021 poll (n=827) found that the economy and economic issues continued to be top concerns. Virginians reported that, out of a range of issues, they were most concerned with employment and healthcare being impacted by the pandemic, with 34% and 33% noting those as the greatest concern. One-quarter said that education was their greatest concern and only 5% said housing was their greatest concern. In addition, this poll found that 19% of Virginians reported receiving financial assistance from the state related to the coronavirus pandemic, such as the Paycheck Protection Program or unemployment benefits.

How can policymakers and public administrators address these major economic concerns? Not only will they need to identify ways of mitigating the negative economic impacts of the pandemic in general, but they must also take special care to ensure that impacts are mitigated in an equitable way. As is the case with so many social issues, those who were already marginalized were largely the ones who have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic and subsequent economic challenges.

To further explore the economic impacts of the pandemic, William Spriggs, Ph.D., professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO, shared insights on economic recovery and the pandemic, with a special focus on social equity, during a Wilder School alumni Lunch and Learn presentation. The webinar covered a variety of topics, including how fear continues to limit rebound in service industries (an industry dominated by people of color), long-term detrimental impacts for the tourism market, the impact of faculty modeling and more.

“It’s a very important time and an important test of our ability as a nation to respond to inequality,” said Spriggs. “This virus has made clear how deep the levels of inequality run.” He went on to point to the service industry, as well as the ongoing debates over if and how much additional unemployment assistance should be provided to those who have lost their jobs, as an example of how existing structural inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“This has been the most disheartening for me personally in this debate,” said Spriggs. “If you’re black or brown, and a disproportionate share of the workers who are affected by this downturn are [affected] not because of skill but because of the industry in which they work. Disproportionately they work in the restaurant industry, disproportionately they work in hotels…as a result, when an unemployment spell occurs they aren’t like other households that have relative liquidity. If you lose your job it isn’t like, ‘I have $600 in the bank and that will tide me over for a week,’…they have nothing in the bank. Then you understand the moment this unemployment check is gone, you’re in big trouble…You can’t pay the rent, you can’t pay the light bill, you can’t buy food, you’re facing life or death.”

We’re now about one year into the pandemic, and while vaccines may be providing a way to alleviate some healthcare concerns, economic concerns do not have as clear an end. This is especially true for those in the service industry and other hard-hit sectors, in which already vulnerable workers may not have a job to return to anytime soon. As they work to navigate the ongoing coronavirus crisis, policymakers at all levels of government must not forget the devastating economic impacts that so many have faced. As the economy remains a major concern for citizens, and as people of color and other historically marginalized members of society have faced the largest impacts, policymakers must be decisive, bold, and equitable in their decisions. Only then can we truly forge a path to recovery.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @CPPatVCU

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