One of the less visible impacts from the coronavirus pandemic is the widening gap of income and wealth inequality among all of Sonoma County’s population. While our primary focus must remain on public health safety measures such as testing, ramping up vaccinations and keeping our masks on at all times, this would not be a good time to ignore what will become the longer range impacts of lost jobs, rental evictions, food insecurity, lack of childcare and preschool programs and the unequal COVID-19 cases among our Latinx communities.
We know that there will eventually be a recovery from the pandemic and the related economic recession. We still don’t know when this will happen but a million local vaccinations (two for every person in the county) will be the main part of the answer. Another thing we must admit is that the recovery will not be equal for everyone. Once again our low-income households and people of color recover more slowly and many will fall farther down the county’s socioeconomic ladder.
We can do better than this and there have some efforts by local nonprofits, one-time government funds and state and federal stimulus packages that have lessened the worst impacts. Early in the 2020 pandemic, county health services director Barbie Robinson declared we are confronting not just a virus pandemic but also a “racial pandemic.”
The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in recent weeks has issued a series of reports on the widening income inequality gap. What they found was a very dreary picture. “Californians have a gloomy economic outlook, and one in four are seriously considering leaving California due to a lack of well-paying jobs in their region,” Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonoma County had 28% of all households (43,000) with incomes below what is needed to meet the basic needs of housing, childcare, transportation and food. Then 38,000 workers fell into immediate unemployment in March when the stay-at-home public heath orders were first instituted. Since then many of those jobs have come back, but a very high proportion of the jobs still lost belong to the lower wage earners in hospitality, agriculture and service industries.
The county supervisors in October began to award $500 and $1,000 one-time subsidy checks to individuals and households, mostly in the Latinx communities where the most fears of rental eviction, long-term unemployment and food insecurity was happening. Also, of the 26,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the county, some 75% have been in the Latinx population.
The more we draw a picture of Sonoma County as a prosperous and desirable place to live and play, and fail to remind ourselves that we have an official poverty rate of 17.7%, the farther we will be from lessening our harmful and dehumanizing income inequality. Once again, the pandemic is in control. (The poverty rate among Latinx population is 5% higher than with white households. Only 10.7% of Latinx families own their own home, while 63% of whites are homeowners.)
Algeria De La Cruz, the director of the county’s new Office of Equity is seeking more partnerships with local nonprofits and community groups to minimize the economic impacts of the pandemic among our most vulnerable and most needful families. Both Robinson and De La Cruz have warned that a widening breach of income inequality will affect everyone at all income levels where long term needs for more social programs, unemployment subsidies, continued stimulus checks and the loss of worker productivity, job training and education opportunities will hold back all segments of the regional economy and a more complete COVID-19 pandemic recovery.
Tackling our income inequality is a not a “repair job.” These social and economic disparities have existed here for generations. Just getting back to pre-COVID levels would not be an effort for which to feel proud. More equity would be like a social vaccine.