Wolf administration task force offers slew of recommendations to close racial, economic disparities revealed by pandemic

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Image via the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

By Cassie Miller

Since its inception in April, a Wolf administration task force  has worked to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Pennsylvania’s minority population.

On Thursday, that panel, formally known as the Health Disparities Task Force, released its final report. Sprawling across 34-pages and six topic areas, it detailed more than 50 recommendations for Gov. Tom Wolf to review and act upon.

Those recommendations, ranked by urgency, include housing, criminal justice, food insecurity, health disparity, education and economic opportunities. 

“With 57 specific policy recommendations, I believe that this report will be beneficial in policy development to help end the health disparities in our marginalized communities, which have been so vastly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the task force’s chairman, said. 

Below are the takeaways from each policy topic in the report: 

  1. Housing: The report’s authors argue that sealing evictions for Pennsylvanians who applied for unemployment during COVID-19 will prevent tenants from being penalized and jeopardizing their future housing stability through no fault of their own. 

“Under the current system, tenants have an eviction record from the moment a case is filed against them, regardless of the outcome of the proceedings. This record exists even if they never end up with an eviction, if a case is withdrawn, or if a tenant wins and is found to be not at fault. The filing stays on their public record and haunts them for years, making it nearly impossible to secure stable new housing,” the report stated. 

  1. Criminal Justice: Implementing a driver’s license amnesty program will correct an oversight that left many Black and Brown Pennsylvanians with decreased mobility. While the Legislature acted to end license suspensions for non-driving-related offenses, the move was not retroactive. The report’s authors say this  limits the ability to travel to healthcare and forces more people onto mass transit that could spread the virus. 
  2. Food Insecurity: Increasing the income threshold for food assistance will ensure that more people are eligible, the report reads.
  3. Health Disparity: The report’s authors say it is crucial to continue the Alternative Payment Arrangement that helped to finance the gap when individuals were unable to access services until service access fluctuations subside. 
  4. Education: Standardizing remote learning and access to technology will help to ensure all students start with equal learning opportunities. 
  5. Economic Opportunities: Helping Black- and Brown-owned businesses with direct, expedited assistance through special programs will reduce the number of these businesses that are forced to close permanently because of the virus.

Housing 

In addition to sealing evictions, the task force recommends expanding rental assistance programs, better outreach for rental assistance programs, increased access to affordable housing, improvements to the state’s landlord/tenant laws and language accessibility for housing rights regulations. 

“Those translations would be released alongside and contemporary to the English release, rather than days or weeks later. This delay has real effects on the Asian and Pacific Islander community’s ability to quickly access necessary services,” the report found. 

Criminal Justice

The task force made nine recommendations as they relate to criminal justice and law enforcement’s impact on minority communities. 

The task force, which is led by Fetterman, who also chairs the state Board of Pardons, recommended digitizing Pennsylvania’s executive clemency process, which has primarily been paper-based, to meet increased interest in the clemency process. 

Additionally, the task force called for programs, and increased funds for community education and services related to anti-hate and anti-discrimination. 

Other recommendations include support for automatic expungement, expanding the language in anti-discrimination laws to include country of origin, immigration status, gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Food Insecurity

The task force made nine recommendations, ranging from reviewing qualification standards to improving food mobility and including culturally appropriate foods. 

“There should be an increase in the culturally appropriate foods in food support programs for immigrant communities, which are shelf-stable items such as long-grain and basmati rice and a variety of beans (either in bags or in cans),” the report noted. 

Health Disparities

Increasing testing capacity and speed, is a major hurdle for all Pennsylvanians the report said. 

“The biggest concern as it relates to the pandemic is the lack of testing despite efforts to increase testing as a Commonwealth. We are also experiencing test result delays which may lead to people not seeking a test, ” the report concluded.

The task force issued 12 recommendations on resolving health disparities, including accurately tracking and mandating tracking all races, ethnicities and gender identities, distributing PPE to community-based healthcare providers and increasing language access at testing sites and other health care facilities. 

Education

The task force laid out nine recommendations under the topic of education. 

Among them, are:

  • Creating a statewide LGBTQ+ youth mentor hotline,
  • Expanding programs engaging with parents and improve language access, 
  • Ensure that schools and students are not penalized in the aftermath of the pandemic as they deal with the implications of the loss of learning, 
  • Coordinate additional supportive services for students who are in foster care, experiencing homelessness or incarcerated, 
  • Expanding broadband access, 
  • Building CDC guidance, local guidance into school curriculum,
  • Standarizing remote learning and access to technology. 

Economic Opportunities

Lastly, the task force laid out 10 recommendations, many of which called for increased support for small businesses, minority and immigrant-owned businesses and providing the state’s labor laws in languages other than English. 

Other recommendations included in the report were:

  • Setting up a specific fund to support and rebuild businesses that are damaged by hate crimes and,
  • Creating an emergency fund to assist families with household costs that are essential to the well-being of the family.

The report notes that while some of the recommendations included are for the short-term and others for long-term planning purposes, not all require legislative action, and some can be completed immediately. 

With these recommendations in the setting of this global pandemic, we have an opportunity to affect change that will begin to correct the course of policy that has historically been biased to those who are at the greatest disadvantage in our society,” the report concluded. “Our demographics are changing, and we must invest in correcting this disparity or we risk alienating many talented workers who will be the future leaders of industry in Pennsylvania.” 

Cassie Miller is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.