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The Pandemic and Equality in the United States

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

By Ben Tafoya
August 14, 2020

The unprecedented crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is exasperating the deep chasm of inequality that haunts our country. Critical aspects of our society including the economy, policing, education and healthcare are exhibits of this challenging time. In late winter and early spring, the global economy was shut down in order to hamper the spread of the virus. That shutdown brought about a global depression and, combined with simmering tensions due to the inherent racism in our society, built up to a storm of reckoning. Traditional institutions have difficulty responding to such pressures.

Public administration must rise to this challenge. With the recent passing of H. George Frederickson, we are reminded again of the important arc that has passed through public service requiring that an ethical and moral profession commit itself to reduction of inequality as a central tenet. As argued elsewhere, this is not a matter of just making sure that all people have equitable access to government services regardless of race, religion, gender identity or socio-economic class, but rather a set of conscious efforts to remove barriers to equality in all spheres of society.

The economy is a case in point. With a general unemployment level of 10.2%, we see the impacts of the crisis are greatest on service sector workers, who are disproportionately women, people of color and lower paid. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell estimated that in March, 40% of those making less than $40,000 lost their jobs. The July unemployment rate for women stands at 10.5%, higher for women as heads of households and for men and women with high school education at 10.8% and for those in leisure and hospitality total employment is down by over 4 million jobs. All while the number of daily cases of the virus stays at a surge level indicating a difficult road ahead for in-person services.

Congress took action in March to provide support to the economy through expanded unemployment assistance, loans and grants to businesses to support payrolls, assistance to the Federal Reserve and assistance to state and local government to offset costs of services required during the pandemic. Among the most critical provisions was a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions in properties supported by federally backed loans. Those measures have come to an end and as of this writing and there is little progress on extensions.

The Federal Reserve has launched extraordinary measures to support the economy. Their tools come down to the ability to increase the amount of money in circulation by buying debt instruments of various kinds (the list keeps growing). As such those who have capital assets are the ones that benefit most from their actions, which helps explain the high level of the stock market as indicated in the Dow Index, amid a moment of massive economic dislocation.

This is also a critical moment for issues of racial justice. With the killings of George Floyd,  Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery (plus too many others) and the accompanying protests against the current model of policing and incarceration, there is a push for equity in the social sphere. While there were modest steps for criminal justice reform signed in 2018, there are more serious proposals by stakeholders, by members of Congress and at state levels to change the focus of law enforcement to a model that better serves the needs of an incredibly vast and diverse country facing racial and economic discrimination.

This year is our quadrennial election where we vote for President, House of Representatives, one third of the Senate and a myriad of state and local legislators and officials. How will this work amidst a major public health crisis? States are making it easier for voters to cast ballots by mail or do so in a socially distanced manner. But there are serious challenges to counting votes accurately and quickly as we insure that as many fellow citizens as desired have the right to participate. Moreover, the racial disparities of access to the ballot raise questions about intentional discrimination.

In each of these areas, public administrators have a critical role in protecting an expanded democracy. Fundamentally, the health of our democracy is threatened by the vast differences in economic, social and political circumstance of our fellow citizens. This condition is not a random outcome of natural laws but rather consequences of policies designed to reward some and not others. Leading voices active in the discipline have long argued for social equity to be an equal pillar to economy and efficiency in the profession.

It is through informed public administration that policies can be evaluated, proposed and implemented to meet the goal of a more equitable society. It is a matter of political will to shape the discussion of public policy to alleviate rather than increase inequality. Public officials, and the polity as a whole, must entrust the public sector with the tools to make progress on these issues before it results in a crisis of legitimacy for our representative democracy.

Author: Ben Tafoya holds a doctorate from Northeastern University where he serves as an adjunct lecturer in economics. He works as a research director in Boston and is a former local elected official. Ben is the author of a chapter on social equity and public administration in the recently published volume, “Public Affairs Practicum” from Birkdale Publishers. He can be reached at [email protected] and @policyben on Twitter.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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