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By Ruth Trombka, Editor and Writer 
The BUILD Initiative

In the midst of a pandemic that as of April 9 has claimed over 16,000 lives in the US, essential workers – those who maintain the services in the absence of which sickness, poverty, violence, and chaos might result – are still reporting to work. While a spotlight has deservedly shone on health care workers and their heroic efforts, many other less prominent essential service providers also continue to do their jobs. Some of those who risk their own well-being to help maintain some semblance of life as we know it include child care workers, postal employees, garbage collectors, mass transit workers, warehouses workers, and a long list of others. Just some of these frontline workers are:

The pandemic is underscoring how US policies are crafted to define who is priority rather than solutions that benefit all those who experience similar conditions, e.g., working with the public. Our focus is on health care workers right now because they are so plainly key to getting us through the current crisis. We are indebted to them now more than ever and have them in our hearts. But other essential workers who, like them, are not afforded the privilege of staying home, such as grocery store cashiers, bus drivers, and other public-facing employees, would benefit, for example, from some of the same personal protective equipment (PPE) as doctors and nurses. 

The lack of a policy that benefits all those in similar conditions is clear to Sen. Edward J. Markey, (D-Mass.). According to the Washington Post, he sent a letter to the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noting the absence of clear guidelines from government agencies on “how to protect workers — and customers — during the ongoing pandemic.” In his definition of essential workers, he included not just health care workers, but “transportation and postal workers, grocery employees, restaurant workers, delivery drivers and anyone who provides ‘an essential or key public service.’” He also sent a letter to the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, arguing that all these workers need personal protective equipment. 

The Trump administration did ship N95 masks to all states, an action that may make many citizens feel the administration is doing what it can to protect those who are fighting this war. But, as this Huffpost article notes, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the administration “did not distribute supplies from the National Strategic Stockpile to states based on their individual needs during the coronavirus pandemic,” i.e., some states received the same number of supplies despite having vastly different populations. This has resulted, for example, in Vermont receiving a final shipment of “120,900 N95 masks for its population of 623,989, and Texas receiving the same number of masks for its population of 28.9 million.” 

How can we get to a place – during the pandemic and after -- in which our policies apply to all who will benefit from them, not just a select few? According to john a. powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, we need to change the framework from which we operate. He says we currently operate within the following two frameworks:

  • Universal Approaches, which are widely used to package policies for broad appeal. But they treat everyone the same [and therefore] can’t root out group-based discrimination and may actually deepen inequality between groups rather than reduce it. 
  • Targeted Policies, which provide benefits or protection based on group membership or status. For example, SNAP, the food stamp program, conditions benefits on income level; the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public accessibility for disabled groups. Targeted approaches are vulnerable to the criticism that they unfairly favor constituent groups over the public good by directing resources to marginalized groups who are already subjected to unfair stereotypes

powell suggests a third approach, that can be implemented through these five steps:

  • Targeted Universalism, which includes setting universal goals that can be achieved through targeted approaches, simultaneously aims for a universal goal while also addressing disparities in opportunities among sub-groups. Within this framework, universal goals are established for all groups concerned.

We know that the pandemic has raised awareness of systemic inequities in this country. If we take on the approach to policy making that powell encourages, we will, as he wrote, “target the various needs of each group while reminding us that we are all part of the same social fabric.”

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