By Rachel Fulcher Dawson, Associate Director of Research Operations
The pandemic and poverty
People living in poverty have the fewest resources to weather crises and navigate economic shocks. One car repair, for example, can lead to missed work and school, a spiral of debt, and late rent and utility payments. Add to this the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to high unemployment, major physical and mental health crises, child care shortages, evictions, and more. These are all felt most fully by our most vulnerable neighbors. The pandemic has revealed, among other things, the extremes of wealth and poverty in America. Individuals who seem equally susceptible to an invisible virus have vastly different experiences in the economic and health fallouts of that same insidious force.
What this means for LEO
The pandemic reinforces what we already know—that poverty is complex, aggressive, and stubborn. It also reinforces LEO’s mission to create evidence-based programs and policies to improve lives and reduce poverty. As the pandemic reveals vast economic gaps and vulnerabilities of the poor, it also shines a spotlight on the need for anti-poverty programs that work. The need right now is great, so we greatly need to know how best to meet it.
How we are responding
LEO is involved in several key initiatives to fight poverty caused by and made worse by this pandemic. We have launched new research studies that examine the impact of COVID-19 on the health of vulnerable populations like the elderly. We are also examining the impact of emergency financial assistance—from both government stimulus payments and local assistance—on stabilizing people in the midst of crisis. As always, we lean on our amazing partner providers to show us the way to create innovative poverty-fighting programs and to honor the dignity of all people in the process.
Systemic racism and poverty
Black Americans live in a country that systemically treats them differently and worse than their peers. This year’s tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others serve as a reminder to us all that racism is alive in America and it has a dehumanizing, devastating effect. We see in our work that Blacks are significantly more likely to be poor and to suffer the lifelong negative effects of this poverty.
What this means for LEO
The events of this past year have reminded us of two things: there is much more work to be done to ensure that everyone in America is truly equal and truly free, and we at LEO have much more to learn and do in our part to make that so. Our efforts to reduce poverty cannot be separated from the need for greater justice in America’s poverty-fighting systems.
How we are responding
We first acknowledge that LEO’s staff and faculty are not racially or ethnically diverse. This reflects both the field of economics at large, as well as that of the University of Notre Dame personnel and student body. As such, we have chosen to humbly begin the work of educating ourselves and making changes based on what we learn. Specifically, our internal LEO Racial Justice Committee is focused on three key ways we can improve racial justice in our work and in our workplace. First, we are committed to participating in efforts to improve racial diversity in the field of economics. Second, we are committed to improving LEO’s culture internally to ensure it is open and supportive of people of all backgrounds. Finally, we are exploring the nature of evaluation itself—the heart of our work—so that how we research and what we research honors the dignity, voice, and uniqueness of all individuals and accounts for systemic racism in the programs and policies we examine. Again, we are leaning heavily on our provider partners to show us the way towards justice and anti-racism.
Reasons for hope: Rising to the occasion
Still, we hope. While these are unprecedented times for all of us, and most especially for people in poverty, we see this year as a likely tipping point for evidence-based poverty work. If ever there was a need for programs that truly reduce poverty and improve lives, it is during a pandemic that has greatly increased poverty. And when it comes to examining our own organization and work through the lens of racial justice, at every turn our efforts to learn and be a part of solutions have been met with welcome, enthusiasm, and a shared commitment to justice. Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and social justice activist, sets a standard for our work at LEO: “The opposite of poverty is justice.” At LEO as we fight against poverty, we also must fight for justice.