With the unemployment rate projected to be the highest it’s been since the Great Depression as Covid-19 continues its deadly spread, communities across the United States are hurting deeply.
The pain, however, is not a “great equalizer,” as some have claimed. Rather, it is deepening existing inequities — early reports indicate that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting low-income communities, low-wage earners, and communities of color.
After the Great Recession in 2008, when more than 50% of the wealth in Black and Hispanic households was wiped out, investing in supportive services for low-income communities, entrepreneurs of color, and women-owned businesses gained increased attention from impact investors. Today, the losses due to the Covid-19 crisis could be worse, and the gains made since the last recession could be lost, without aggressive proactive steps from the government and continued focus from impact investors and the private sector.
A multiplicity of factors contributes to the crises’ disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations. These populations are faced with higher poverty levels, higher uninsured levels, higher exposure to pollution, and a significantly lower ability to work from home when compared with wealthier communities. The latter factor, being able to telecommute, tracks to wages; the ability to work from home is six times greater for higher-wage workers than lower-wage workers. Holding essential jobs in sectors such as food service and relying on hourly income, many lower-wage workers face exposure as they work through the pandemic.
These underlying discrepancies starkly play out in the numbers tracking Covid-19 illnesses and deaths. On a national level, while Blacks account for 13.4% of the country’s population, 33.1% of individuals hospitalized for Covid-19 have been Black. Death rates for Black and Latino people are double those of Whites in New York City. Native American communities are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 due to high rates of diabetes and heart disease, limited clean water in some areas, and overcrowding.
The factors exacerbating the effect of Covid-19 on minority and low-income communities are familiar to the impact investing community — they have been underlying drivers for many economic equality funds, job training initiatives, public health projects, and more. Now, more than ever, we need to maintain or increase our commitment to socio-economic justice.
When society is in distress, money flows the way it normally does — to those organizations and people that have connections, hold the longest track record, and are the easiest to underwrite. In this time, being an impact investor means stepping up and supporting the people and places facing disproportionate challenges.
We suggest taking three steps to support those most deeply in need:
- Stay Focused — For the foreseeable future, all investments might look like impact investments because communities are in crisis everywhere. If you were focused on supporting disadvantaged communities, female entrepreneurs, immigrants, or other marginalized groups before the crisis, stay focused — the challenges they face today are even greater than a few months ago.
- Look for Immediate Gaps — Where are the people and businesses that don’t qualify for government assistance? The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) gave preference to organizations with traditional banking relationships, set a timeline for full re-hiring of staff that may not be feasible for many service-related businesses, and centered loan forgiveness around the number of employees on staff. These features leave out many people in need — 96% of Black-owned businesses, for example, have no employees, which significantly limits their ability to qualify for loan forgiveness.
- Commit to the Long-Term — Identify the organizations and leaders that are uniquely positioned to understand and help the most vulnerable communities. Ask them what their community needs are, support their work today, and let them know you’re committed to the long-term recovery. Check in with them regularly to learn what new needs have developed and be willing to bring a flexible set of capital tools to the table.