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Panelists Call for Inclusion and Accessibility to Fix Broken Aid Systems

February 10, 2021 by Victoria Turner
Francis Stallings tapes signs to her car before participating in a caravan rally down the Las Vegas Strip in support of extending the $600 unemployment benefit, August 6, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Bridget Bennett/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed and aggravated long standing weaknesses in the nation’s housing assistance and unemployment insurance systems, safety nets intended to aid the most vulnerable communities, according to participants in an event sponsored by the New America Practice Lab.

During the event, which was held Tuesday, speakers called for simplifying the systems to make them accessible for all, educating communities on what aid is available to them and ensuring that the relief reaches the most vulnerable.

Tara McGuinness, fellow and senior adviser to the New America Practice Lab, pointed out that the Black, brown and Latino communities face more difficulty in receiving unemployment benefits “compared to their White counterparts.” 

White workers make up 78% of the unemployment insurance recipients, despite being only 50% of the unemployed workers. Black and Latino workers, on the other hand, make up 40% of those unemployed but receive less than 20% of jobless benefits.

A New America Lab research investigation on housing loss in the Sun Belt found three challenges in key “demographic variables” making it difficult for renters and homeowners seeking assistance: bad data, extreme inequities among those suffering housing loss and poor delivery of aid. 

According to the co-authors, those most affected are Black households, those without health insurance, those needing public transportation to commute to work and single-parent households.

Also, strict eligibility requirements and “extensive documentation,” frequently make housing aid inaccessible for the most vulnerable, with the co-authors noting especially deficient deployment of pandemic-related relief and lack of tenant education on available assistance.The authors proposed policy solutions that would simplify the application process, straight-to-tenant fund disbursement, bolstering tenant protections, and “robust outreach” to the at-risk communities.

Monee Fields-White, co-author and presenter of a second New America report entitled “Unpacking Inequities in Unemployment Insurance,” said that racial and economic disparities were built into the unemployment insurance system “from its inception” in 1935.

These disparities included the exclusion of agriculture and domestic workers, the vast majority of whom were Black. 

A series of “compounding inequities” has followed and continues to affect workers of color and lower-wage workers to this day. 

For instance, the report says, despite nationwide initiatives to upgrade computer systems across the board and moving all government services online, many unemployed workers looking for assistance have still encountered a number of “roadblocks” in applying – from websites crashing to many websites not being mobile-friendly. 

“It could be as simple as where you live,” Fields-White said, with Southern states usually having fewer benefits and stricter job-search requirements than other regions of the country. 

“Making the program available is 20% of the job to be done,” said Maurice Jones, president and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, during the panel discussion. The other 80% is to assist people in accessing the program, he said.

“What people need to do is be much more inclusive in the front-end,” he said.

Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, believes there is a need to “build some degree of federalization” into the system, as many who received pandemic-related aid did not even qualify for jobless benefits in many states. 

She feels that unemployment insurance “[destroys] communities” if improperly implemented. 

This disconnect between the systems and the communities they are supposed to serve was also present in the “pre-existing housing crises,” said Rebecca Yae, senior research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

She pointed out that the first pandemic relief package, passed by Congress last March, did not include funding for rental or housing aid.

The panelists said they hope that President Biden’s focus on improving existing programs and implementing new ones “places attention on reaching people,” with McGuinness noting that Biden had previously seen “the distance” it took for a law to become implemented after being passed.

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