DESPITE A NATIONWIDE reckoning on race, Massachusetts society post-COVID could see even worsening inequities in society based on class and race, if policymakers do not make a conscious effort to intervene, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Senate committee on “Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency.”
Faced with the broad task of analyzing societal changes during COVID and making recommendations with an eye toward equity, the committee’s first report addresses issues including the digital divide, transportation, economic policy, and intergenerational care. “The issues we decided to focus were the ones that seemed to be demonstrating that our institutions were failing us, and were in need of a dramatic rethink,” said Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat who chaired the committee, in an interview.
“It really came through during the pandemic and racial reckoning that if we’re trying to confront vulnerabilities in our Commonwealth, we had better confront the persistent inequalities that have led to different health outcomes, different outcomes related to lifelong earnings and education attainment,” Hinds added. “It’s long past due that we’re doing something about these inequalities that we’ve been talking about for a long time.”
The 30-page report, prepared with assistance from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University and released on Tuesday, lays out in broad contours what some changes to society may be post-pandemic, from hybrid work models to increasing reliance on technology. It argues that many of these changes disproportionately help those who already have the most advantages in life. It makes numerous recommendations that could help lower-income individuals, from providing direct government assistance to offering means-tested lower fares for the MBTA.
It will now be up to the Legislature to decide which, if any, changes to adopt. The report may provide a guidepost as lawmakers seek to distribute a large influx of federal money from the American Rescue Plan as to what programs could be beneficial as they seek to address economic inequality. Most of the recommendations did not come with a specific funding target attached to them, but Hinds said it is no coincidence that his committee released the report as lawmakers are making decisions about ARPA funding.
The most obvious example of a pandemic-related trend that exacerbates inequality is remote or hybrid work. While 44 percent of Massachusetts jobs can be done remotely – one of the highest percentages in the country – the report says that people earning more than $100,000 are twice as likely to have a remote-friendly job as those earning less than $50,000. Around half of White and Asian workers have jobs that can be done remotely, compared to one-third of Black workers and a quarter of Hispanic workers.
“Looking ahead, this could create a whole new dimension of economic inequality, giving whiter, higher-income families fuller access to the benefits of commute-free days, flexible hours, more distant living options, and outside-the-workplace autonomy — even as lower-income residents and workers of color still face the daily rigor of traffic, the need for proximate housing, and the externally-imposed routines of workplace life,” the report says.
Similar inequities exist in other areas, many related in some way to remote work. Households earning more money are more likely to have the internet connections and devices that let them participate in a society that is increasingly moving online.
COVID is also leading to changes in the housing market as remote workers can move further from Boston. Prices are rising in vacation destinations like Cape Cod and the Berkshires, and there is a greater demand for larger homes. But when it comes to homeownership, White households are twice as likely to own homes as non-White households – with 66 percent of White households owning their own home compared to 35 percent of Black households and just 30 percent of Hispanic households. Black and Hispanic households are more likely to be spending a higher percentage of their income on housing costs.
COVID is also leading to a shift in transportation, with fewer people taking public transit than pre-pandemic. This creates an equity conundrum for the MBTA which is getting less money from fares, but where cutbacks would disproportionately hurt lower-income workers of color, because they are the ones who have continued taking the subway and buses to get to in-person jobs.
Many of the report’s recommendations for adapting to these societal changes involve investments to help lower-income individuals. It calls for spending between $250 million and $400 million to address the “digital divide.” While a lack internet access is often seen as a rural problem, the report says it is more likely to be a poverty problem – since even in urban areas where technology is available, people who are poor often cannot afford it. The report suggests the money be spent on internet infrastructure in communities, but also on subsidizing internet services for low-income individuals.
One major recommendation would be to pilot some kind of income support program, to ensure every family receives a consistent income. The report says that an initiative like universal basic income would be expensive, but there may be a way to target subsidies, for example, through more generous tax credits or by creating savings accounts for every baby born to a poor family. Hinds said one lesson learned in the last year and a half is that direct government intervention can be effective in pulling people out of poverty.
Other work-related recommendations include establishing a “bill of rights” for freelance workers, and establishing a public bank with a mission of racial equity to lend to diverse entrepreneurs who have higher risk profiles and cannot get traditional loans.
On housing, the report recommends spending huge sums of money on homeownership and rental assistance. It echoes Gov. Charlie Baker’s frequent exhortations to build more housing stock, recommending that the state spend up to $500 million expanding existing programs meant to spur housing construction.
It also recommends expanding the state’s rental assistance programs by offering aid to everyone who needs it rather than capping the amount of money available. The report would spend $250 million on homebuyer assistance programs and another $100 million to improve the eviction process, by providing a right to counsel for litigants, diversion to mediation, and connections to rental assistance. Hinds said the COVID pandemic highlighted how many people are “living close to the edge” when it comes to housing, and the committee is rethinking how to connect people to resources.
Some of the thorniest questions raised by the report involve public transit – specifically, how to adapt a system that has seen a collapse in ridership of between 45 to 70 percent, depending on the mode, without cutting services that essential workers and low-income individuals rely on. The report says the system must either bring riders back or rethink the economics of how much money should be collected from fares versus taxpayers. The report does not weigh in on how much money should come in from which source, but it does suggest policy options that can be considered, including lowering fares for low-income riders, providing free bus service, and implementing congestion pricing for drivers in Boston.
Hinds said getting people back onto the MBTA will clearly require a large investment – whether in improving service or reducing rider costs – and the federal ARPA money could be used for pilot programs to see what is effective.
While a separate committee is exploring how to address childcare needs, the report includes a section highlighting “intergenerational care,” a top priority of Senate President Karen Spilka. It suggests some regulatory changes to childcare – like reducing the required teacher to child ratio – along with an infusion of emergency stabilization money. It proposes tax breaks for caregivers, which would cost the state between $100 million and $150 million, to help lower-income and middle-class families caring for a child or elderly or disabled person. It also recommends creating new initiatives like intergenerational campuses, where older residents and children can connect.
Spilka and Hinds plan to tour three models of intergenerational care on Tuesday, in conjunction with their official release of the report.