Mitigating the Pandemic with an Eye Toward Equity

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Clark Goldenrod, the deputy director at the Minnesota Budget Project. Credit to Clark Goldenrod.

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Journalist

What a difference a few months make. 

So much for Minnesota working together to upend the state’s embarrassing racial disparities. The Covid-19 pandemic, if anything, has compounded all of the various ways that Black communities, communities of color, and Native American communities are impacted by the state’s unfair playing field. 

Black Minnesotans make up 7 percent of the population, but they make up 16 percent of the Covid-19 cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Meanwhile, meat plant hot spots in greater Minnesota like Worthington and Windom, which are made largely of immigrant workforces, and their families, are vulnerable. And Jails and prisons, disproportionately represented by communities of color, have become breeding grounds for Coronavirus’s spread. 

Covid-19 exacerbates disparities already in place— exposing the gaps in health care insurance, for instance, education gaps, particularly with distance learning which requires access to the internet. According to Ed Allies MN, “145,000 Minnesota students in low-income neighborhoods and rural areas are cut off from dependable, high-speed internet.” 

Advocates for communities of color and immigrant communities have responded to the crisis with an eye toward equity. 

Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL-SD49). Credit: Office of Senator Melisa Franzen.

You can see that with Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL-SD49) and Aisha Gomez (DFL-62B) bill, SF 4540/HF 4611, which seeks emergency  relief for Minnesotans that are not eligible for other types of relief funds like the federal stimulus grants, unemployment insurance, and other relief programs.

Franzen said she wanted to put forth the bill after hearing from so many constituents saying they were being left out of stimulus relief. “I got a lot of feedback from folks that were not being supported by Covid relief funds at the state and federal level because they might not be unemployed or fit into the category of unemployment insurance,” Franzen said. “There are some restrictions, and there’s a lot of gaps.” 

Franzen says the bill addresses Minnesota’s disparities head on. “We know that, for instance, the federal government does not allow some of the federal funding for Covid to go to mixed status families, even though one of the spouses might be a US citizen with social security,” she said. 

The issue is something the Minnesota Budget Project has been trying to address, amplifying that many immigrant families use an ITIN number to file their taxes rather than a social security number. 

Clark Goldenrod, the deputy director at the Minnesota Budget Project, said that homeowners who use an ITEN number end up paying higher property taxes just because they don’t use a social security number, and these families were left out of the Cares Act relief package. “This is leaving out many immigrants and even leaving out parents with U.S. citizen children,” Goldenrod said. “And that means that immigrant taxpayers are going without a crucial support that are available to other neighbors.” 

Veena Iyer, Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center. Credit: ILCM Communications

In addition to the funding itself, Veena Iyer, the Executive Director of the Immigrant Law Center, said the organization is seeking improved implementation of how relief funding gets rolled out. “So that is things like, for example, making sure that all materials for different programs are translated into various languages, that different state agencies are really thoughtful about where to do outreach about various programs,” Iyer said. “And then we have those multi ethnic-outreach plans in place before you even start rolling out the program.” 

A number of issues around equity that were at the forefront of political discussion prior to the pandemic have gotten less amplification more recently. One is a cost of living adjustment for the state’s cash assistance program, the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). According to Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with Legal Aid, there had been bipartisan support to increase MFIP, which is funded through federal and state dollars, and is a difficult program to participate in because of all of its regulations. 

Now, many of the eligible families have been hit the hardest, due to working in hotels, restaurants, and the healthcare industry where many have been laid off during the stay at home order. And while there have been emergency funds set up in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both Anoka County and Washington County “are refusing to
issue their emergency assistance dollars to families for rent, because of the eviction moratorium,” Webster said. “While the pushback the advocates are hearing is that there is some sort of largesse, that low income families can access, it’s just not true. Low income communities, who are in general are disproportionately women, disproportionately people of color, are going to miss out.” 

“When COVID hit, most legislative initiatives were parked,” Webster said of the cost of living increase to the program. “This one died on the vine.”  Webster added that the federal dollars for the program were so far unspent. “We are just getting the legislature to hit send,” she said. 

Another issue that has gone addressed is a bill Senator Franzen was working on supporting childcare assistance. “For folks who can’t afford childcare, Covid has made it very clear that there are huge inequities in our system,” she said, noting that there are still lower income families and geographic areas of folks that don’t have access to the internet, which makes distance learning next to impossible. 

“I think all of these issues, we’re not going to solve them all overnight,” Franzen said. We did a first phase, I would say, as a child care piece, and now we’re knowing that we need to do more. So I hope that there’s that understanding that the need is not going to stop on the 18th when we’re done with session.” 

Unfortunately, since Minnesota’s expected budget surplus has spiraled into a budget deficit over the course of three months. The nearly $4 billion drop in budget forecast, resulting in a 2.4 billion deficit for FY 2020-21, means there are even more scarce resources than previously thought for the most vulnerable Minnesotans. Given this dire circumstances, it becomes more important than ever to keep racial equity at the forefront of plans to mitigate the ongoing crisis. Otherwise, communities of color are left out of resources even more than they already are.

Correction: An earlier version of this story originally stated that Anoka and Washington County do not have emergency assistance; that is incorrect and the story has been updated to reflect that.

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