By: Joe Ryan

Editor | Social Economy

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Communities across America have been devastated by the Coronavirus and it doesn’t look like it is slowing down.

Cases in Florida, Arizona and Texas have continuously beaten previous single-day records as some States decide to re-enter lockdowns. The pandemic has depleted small businesses, stretched hospitals thin and shifted cultural norms.

Although the pandemic has momentarily changed the we way we all live, some communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Center for Disease Control (CDC) data shows Hispanic Americans account for 32 percent of all cases while only making up 18 percent of the American population. Even as the number has regressed, by late April 2020 African Americans accounted for a third of American fatalities.

The overrepresentation of minority cases shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how the virus spreads: through exposure in indoor facilities where essential workers keep the country running; and in close quartered, densely populated living conditions that are breeding grounds for the virus to spread.

Minorities are susceptible on both fronts. 45 percent of African Americans and 35 percent of Hispanic Americans live in concentrated poverty compared to just 12 percent of white Americans. Hispanic Americans make up at least half the workforce in essential industries: agricultural work, housekeeping and construction. African Americans are overrepresented in occupations including nursing, home health aides and security guards. The combination of essential work and dense living conditions allow for community spread in minority-heavy neighbourhoods.

Redlining: The Domino Effect of Mortgage Discrimination

The root of the race-related case discrepancy takes us back to 1934 and the practice of redlining. The lingering effects of redlining are still felt today across the racial inequality in housing, education and wealth. These after-effects perpetuate the spread of the virus in minority communities across America.

The domino effect created by redlining begins with mortgage discrimination. Starting in 1934, government surveyors colour-coded neighbourhoods based on their desirability and credit default risk. Greenlined neighbourhoods were deemed desirable while redlined areas were viewed as risky. Race was an important factor in determining the desirability of a neighbourhood.

Lenders used the colour-coded neighbourhood breakdown as a main tool for doling out mortgages: redlined, predominantly minority residents were denied loans or offered expensive mortgages. Without access to a feasible mortgage it was nearly impossible for minorities to purchase a home, accrue the wealth that comes with home ownership, and move up the social ladder.

Redlining was acceptable during a time when real estate was affordable. Before 1968’s Fair Housing Act made redlining illegal, white households were able to invest in desirable properties at reasonable rates. Between the 40’s and 50’s, the average house was selling for 2x the national median income. White households had a three-decade head start to invest, gain equity and continually upgrade their homes. By the time redlined residents were able to secure affordable mortgages, houses in desirable neighbourhoods were bid up outside of their budgets. Today, those same houses are selling for 8x the national median income and community assimilation is far from perfect–91 percent of greenlined neighbourhoods are still predominantly white.

Redlining maps drawn in three major U.S. cities (Oakland, CA; Charlotte, NC; Los Angeles, CA)

The Educational Funding Gap and Diversity in Higher Education

COVID-19 exposure in minority communities is only amplified by the educational funding gap redlining created.

Working from home, a measure to avoid exposure in indoor office spaces or warehouses is not an option for everyone. While 30 percent of white Americans have the ability to continue their work remotely, only 20 percent of African Americans and 16 percent of Hispanic Americans have access to this opportunity. Their overrepresentation in service and agricultural industries means they are more exposed and susceptible to contracting the virus. Both industries are accessible without a college education, reducing the barriers to attain consistent work for lower income students – many of whom are minorities.

While career choice can stem from passion and interests, the affordability and grade requirements of college can limit those options, especially for lower income high school students. Diversity is still lacking in higher education. African Americans make up just 6 percent of incoming freshmen while representing 15 percent of that demographic; the percentage of African American freshmen attending Ivy League schools has remained the same since the 80s; and Hispanics as a percentage of Americans is growing at a higher rate than their college enrollment rate. These discrepancies can be attributed not only to the wealth gap that redlining created, but also the educational funding gap mortgage discrimination promoted.

In most states, funding comes from within each respective jurisdiction – local (45 percent of funding), state (45 percent) and federal (10 percent). Local funding is primarily driven by local property taxes. More desirable, greenlined neighbourhoods with bustling economies and high housing prices are able to funnel more money into their education system, while poorer, minority-heavy districts do not have access to the same kind of funding.

Access to resources is necessary for grade improvements, academic success and future earnings. High income districts can afford to spend 15 percent more per student, setting them up for a path to success that is unmatchable for poverty-stricken schools to do.

Lessons Learned from a Global Pandemic

Money does matter and the solution begins with policy changes. California and Rhode Island are two recent states that have rolled out reformed education policies. Both states now use a weighted student funding formula to calculate the budget each district receives. Under the new approach, factors including English proficiency and learning disabilities are taken into account. The programs are both in their early stages but showing promising signs. Since enacting the policy in 2013, California has seen that seen that an additional $1,000 per-pupil funding has increased graduation rate by 6 percent in low-income districts.

Without equitable grassroots education funding, socio-economically disadvantaged students – the majority of whom are minorities – do not have the same access to resources that propel students into higher education.

Redlining created and perpetuated systemic barriers preventing class mobility that are being exposed by the virus. Mortgage discrimination enabled a real estate boom that minorities legally couldn’t capitalize on, whose effects are still lingering today. While white Americans can enjoy their backyards or escape to their Hampton Houses, many minorities have been stuck in close-quartered breeding grounds during the COVID-19 era. Coupled with their representation in the service and agricultural industry, they are being exposed to the virus at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a microcosm of American society’s functionality today. Socioeconomics play a role in every aspect of our lives. Just like in 2008, when disaster strikes, minorities are the first ones to feel the brunt. There shouldn’t have to be a trade-off between health and financial well being. This pandemic has illustrated the problems that plague America in an explicit light. Racial disparities have slowly compounded into a widened wealth gap, stagnation in minority higher education and now, increased exposure to a deadly virus.

This acknowledgement can push America to real tangible change, through education. Providing access to adequate funding to each district, financial opportunities to pursue degrees and resources for success is a start, not only to a more equal society but a more diverse workforce ready for the next pandemic.