A just post-COVID economic recovery must be society’s priority

Last year, colleagues at the Brookings Institution and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas launched a research project examining shifting inequities in the post-pandemic recovery. Many researchers, including our colleagues, have portrayed the impact of COVID as an illness and a turbulent economic moment that disrupted a robust economy. Far fewer have appreciated the asymmetries in the lived experiences of the journey back to normal, largely defined by racial identities, chronic marginalization, and the influence of place in shaping those experiences.

The specificity of COVID’s devastation influenced our decision to focus our research on Nevada, one of the states hardest hit by two devastating economic recessions in the post-911 era: one as a result of the subprime housing crisis and now the second because from COVID. Southern Nevada — the Las Vegas metropolitan area — was by almost every measure the hardest-hit part of the United States during the Great Recession (2008-2009), and for the past two years, the region has been hit by similar economic damage. As such, Nevada is an ideal place to focus on how examining economic recovery on too general a scale can hide deep injustices that systematically affect specific groups. Nevada is the third most racially and ethnically diverse state and one where a significant portion of its economic activity is focused on leisure, hospitality and entertainment — industries hit by state-ordered closures in 2020. Linking Nevada’s state and local decision-making provides unique insights into the experiences of communities traditionally slowest to recover because of their well-being and the policies needed to ensure their ability to thrive, supplemental appendices to fast-moving legislation and executive agendas.

Media and popular discussions of the two recessions often focus on top-line numbers like the country’s unemployment rate, wage growth, housing insecurity, housing starts, families living below the poverty line, and other common indicators of economic hardship or prosperity. While these metrics provide an important macro view of society, they often obscure the profound upheaval that families on the edge are experiencing. It also overlooks how differences between groups are manifested, be it race, ethnicity, gender, class, housing status, health and/or immigration status.

COVID-19 has pushed families on the edge over a cliff and requires that we pay attention to the organizations working to mitigate the impact of these life-changing moments. What is often lost and overlooked in broad discussions is a set of common scenarios in which America, on average, is doing better but certain groups, subgroups, and intersectional groups still need a few years to recover.

This exclusion of group and subgroup realities has more serious implications outside of cable news discussions and newspaper columns. It also affects the responsiveness of public policies. After a severe economic downturn, elected officials at all levels of government and in both parties often seek to identify and glorify good economic news. By focusing on good economic news, political decisions follow. Easing economic relief, relaxing emergency rules and regulations, and acting on a macro-government approach are often based on the idea that everyone is fine because averages look good. This incomplete reporting and response to the experiences of marginalized populations lacks humanity and reality, and is an ongoing weakness in the way elites observe and respond to societal problems. Worse, it fosters a flawed sense of complacency and mission accomplished because we’ve avoided the worse hypotheses.

Failing to draw on the experiences of groups who have not fared well in recovery repeats the veneers that have created a deeply unequal society where place and economic fate are inextricably linked. It creates a new level of distrust and distrust in government. It also reveals deep fissures in our democracy that exist in everyday political decisions and outcomes and are exacerbated in times of crisis. These tensions concern the fundamental question of politics—who gets what and when—and also how injustices in our system exist in normal times and explode during disasters, whether small-scale like a tornado or hurricane or large-scale like a pandemic and recession.

Over time, such ill-advised policy decisions have concentrated, cumulative effects. These same groups are overlooked, left behind, and prematurely drained of resources. When the next economic downturn inevitably arrives, the same groups are not only hardest hit, but in some cases have not had an opportunity to fully recover from the previous recession. And during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, a combination of a public health emergency and an economic recession simultaneously impacted marginalized communities physically, psychologically and economically. According to one of our partners, “our tools are only suitable for budgetary crises, but fail in the face of social and health crises.”

Our project addresses this research gap by combining detailed quantitative data on the broader economy, group-specific economic experiences, and original survey data. Additionally, we conducted extensive interviews with executives and policymakers across the state of Nevada to examine the lived experiences of marginalized groups across economic sectors, socioeconomic and demographic groups, and geographic regions within the state. We hope to achieve a multi-layered understanding of traditional descriptive data by engaging the voices of organizational leaders (private and public), elected officials and, more importantly, the frontline population during the most vulnerable time of the pandemic.

The aim of our project is to assess how specific groups have weathered the pandemic and related recession and how government responses to political conditions and group needs have been successful or lagging. The project examines the new ways in which government agencies have learned to support community well-being within legal constraints; Some of these practices are now an integral part of public service policy. Understanding how much trauma has occurred as a result of COVID-19 and how that trauma continues is vital for policymakers, the media and the general public to understand as a nation seeks to move on while many still face great challenges.

Ultimately, the goal of our research is to provide recommendations to governments at all levels on how to better understand policy challenges at the micro level, particularly for specific groups whose challenges persist even when broader economic indicators point to a recovery. The common policy failures, concentrated geographically and demographically, result in systematic and enduring economic struggles. We will focus in part on how policymakers who proudly label certain groups as “resilient” mask the underlying policy that requires certain groups to be resilient, namely that they never fully recover. We will also make recommendations for elected officials at all levels of government not to view COVID as a unique, one-off event unlikely to happen again. Instead, COVID exposed deep political issues across the country. These political problems will intensify and return—though not all at once—but it is the duty of our leaders to address problems in “healthy” times so that crises can be managed more effectively.

COVID has taken many of us by surprise, from ordinary Americans to public health officials to industry officials and world leaders. Governments have struggled to respond effectively and fully to the rapidly escalating needs of their citizens and residents. However, this need not be the public expectation, and mistakes need not be repeated. Governments can and must learn from their own successes, struggles and failures over the past two years. They must institute contingency protocols for moments when political failure is deepening rapidly. The recommendations from this project will help improve government-wide responsiveness to crises – large and small – in a way that not only addresses improvements in broader economic indicators, but also by prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized among us , to ensure that they are not consistently among the groups most ignored and most excluded from political discussions and decisions.

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