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A moral imperative: Race, poverty and coronavirus

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How does anyone in good conscience separate race from poverty? You can’t. It is intricately linked. There is a tendency to not connect the dots.


The coronavirus is ripping mercilessly throughout the world and causing death and destruction. In the United States over 500,000 people have been infected. Sadly, over 24,000 have died. New York City has been hit the hardest with over 10,000 deaths. 

Across the United States the mortality rates for African Americans shine the brightest light yet on the deep divide in our country. While there are multiple conversations about the fact that African Americans are dying at disproportionate rates from the virus, I think that we ought to take a deeper look at the causative factors. 

It is past time for America to look in the mirror at centuries of systematic oppression of Black and African American people in this country. I find it deeply troubling that even the President of the United States of America and others in the upper echelon of society are asking why. How do they not know that disparities exist? Sad.

African Americans aren’t dying just because of their race. African Americans are dying because of their zip codes, and where they live. African Americans are dying in devastatingly large numbers because of inequality, centuries of health disparities, structural poverty and racism. 

The General Assembly in Rhode Island must take stock and take action immediately. While it is easy to glance through the racial framework for answers to this pandemic; it is worthwhile to look at the mechanisms which enable this disparity to thrive. 


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How does anyone in good conscience separate race from poverty? You can’t. It is intricately linked. There is a tendency to not connect the dots. It is my hope that this pandemic becomes our compass to passing thoughtful and intentional, and might I add, compassionate laws that would change the trajectory of black and brown people’s lives. It is a moral imperative.

The lack of adequate sick time, maternity leave, access to doulas, exposure to pollution, low paying jobs, food insecurity, injustice in the penal system, lack of access to internet, poor performing schools and gun violence puts African American and Latinos at much greater risk for poor outcomes. These, and other causative factors put our most vulnerable neighbors at greater risk to the coronavirus which inevitably leads to higher mortality rates. 

Passing a $15 Living Wage should not be controversial, sadly it is. Passing a $15 Living Wage puts us on a path to leveling the wage playing field, reducing mortality and morbidity rates and improving the overall outcomes of all Rhode Islanders. Data gleaned from the Economic Institute makes it clear that increasing the minimum wage helps reverse wage disparities for workers of color – nearly half of all Black and Latino workers would benefit from an increase according to the Economic Progress Institute (EPI). 

In a recent report, the EPI rightfully suggests that “Minimum wage earners are not able to meet their basic needs.” It continued by stating, “While an increase of $1.00 is an important step, we urge the General Assembly to put us on a path to $15. We know that families need much more than $15 an hour to meet their basic needs.” The same report suggests that a parent with two young children needs to earn at least $30/hour. 

Unfortunately, the General Assembly sided with big businesses and left hard working Rhode Islanders who are struggling behind when it increased the minimum wage this session. The economic pain from so many poor families still struggling to keep a roof over their heads or food on their table should inform all of us of the need to be bold enough to put low wage workers on a path to $15 an hour. 

The Economic Progress Institute data further postulate that, “The poverty rate in Rhode Island is roughly four times higher for Latinx families, more than two and a half times higher for Black or African American families, and nearly two times higher for Asian families, when compared to White families. While White recipients are the single largest racial group (40.4 percent) of RI Works families, the majority of recipients (59.6 percent) are people of color, including 31.4 percent who identify as Latinx and 24.1 percent who identify as Black.” 

While the data from coronavirus in Rhode Island is still being tabulated, and we may not fully know the exact numbers at this time, what is clear, based on national data trends is that communities of color have and will experience the greatest adverse impact. 

At a time when women voices are often overlooked, it is reassuring to see Governor Gina Raimondo and Department of Health Director Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott share space to provide exemplary leadership during this pandemic. I applaud them. In the same breath, let’s listen to their advice to stay home. In regards to reconvening the General Assembly, I think we must be deliberate and seek out alternatives that will illicit full public participation. 

It may be worthwhile to note that while we are all working to practice social and physical distancing, it is hard for many Rhode Islanders in our core urban areas. Overcrowding, density and high rents makes it virtually impossible for some families to effectively distance themselves from each other. Social and physical distancing then becomes a matter of privilege mostly reserved for the wealthiest among us. 

While teachers across the state, including me, work diligently to teach using the Distant Learning format, we must acknowledge the disparity in broadband access for children and families living in poor communities. We must make free high-quality internet available to all families immediately. I will be introducing legislation to address this inequity. 

Rhode Island can do a few things right now: expand paid sick leave, and ensure that access to loans and technical assistance is available to minority and women owned businesses. The $1.25 billion dollar in Federal Stimulus money should be distributed in an equitable fashion with funds allotted to communities that are impacted the most. In addition, the homeless, seniors, tipped workers, and low wage earners who often cannot take time off when they are sick must be given due consideration and priority.

There is much to unpack during this pandemic. This is our moment, Rhode Island. Moving forward, we can use this moment wisely to create policies that change the trajectory of people’s lives by passing compassionate legislation or, we can squander it.