Black and Latinx residents of the greater Ypsilanti area, like their peers across the country, have been dealing with a great disparity in health outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new study of residents in the 48197 and 48198 area codes shows that the pandemic is also having disparate effects on employment, housing, education, and a number of other areas.
The study was conducted earlier this year by the Center for Equitable Family and Community Well-Being (CEFCW) at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, in cooperation with the Washtenaw County Racial Equity Office and Eastern Michigan University's Family Empowerment Program (FEP). It was funded in part through a $25,000 grant from the University of Michigan's Poverty Solutions program.
The study found that 16% of Black respondents and 18% of Latinx respondents lost a job due to COVID-19, in contrast with 8% of white respondents. Additionally, more than half of Black respondents said they would be unable to absorb an unexpected $400 emergency expense, while only about a third of Latinx or white respondents had the same concern.
The idea for the study came from Marquan Jackson, FEP director, who wanted to examine the pandemic's impact on low-income families in the greater Ypsilanti area. Marquan Jackson.
"I realized quickly at the onset of the pandemic that the families being served by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission were having a very different experience than those of us who have the means and are middle-class," Jackson says. "We wanted to provide a metric, in real time, for stakeholders and elected officials of what people in the 48197 and 48198 area codes were experiencing in terms of the impacts of COVID."
Patrick Meehan, program manager for the CEFCW, says many of the study's questions were borrowed from a similar survey done in the Detroit metro area, but the research team added a number of other questions on the broader impacts of COVID.
"Once we started to pursue surveying residents, we didn't want to limit it just to COVID itself but to also understand the broader impacts around COVID, transition to virtual learning for families with children, and also what has been happening in the wake of the George Floyd killing," says Meehan. The study also examined respondents' attitudes about law enforcement and a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
The study kicked off in early June when an email invitation went out to residents of the two ZIP codes that the research team had identified as their target population. Data collection ended Aug. 21. The research leads conducted a virtual stakeholders meeting Sept. 17 to discuss the results with elected officials at the municipal and county level.
"We didn't design it to be perfectly representative of the community," Meehan says. "We were trying to reach residents we thought would be most impacted by COVID-19. We specifically targeted residents of the county housing commission."
Ypsilanti-based nonprofits and foundations also helped with distribution of the survey and getting the word out. Despite the fact that low-income households were being targeted, Meehan says the demographics ended up "pretty closely mirroring the demographics of Ypsilanti, at least in terms of race."
The local results also "were consistent with … racial disparities similar to what we've observed nationally, especially deaths" among Black residents, Meehan says.
"We're a fairly well-educated community, broadly speaking, compared to national averages, and it didn't really prevent the community from feeling the same impact of COVID as elsewhere," Meehan says. "I think that's emblematic of inequalities in the area."
The fact that 75% of Black respondents didn't own their own residences, and only 35% of those same respondents were able to work from home, is directly related to coming in contact with a greater number of people outside the respondents' families, leading to higher infection rates.
Jackson found very few surprises in the survey results, since FEP works closely with low-income residents.
"The fact that the majority of Black respondents didn't have $400 in an emergency fund was very telling," Jackson says.
He notes there's a "domino effect" since many of the same respondents don't have a checking account for COVID stimulus relief money. Those families had to wait for paper checks, and in the meantime, weren't able to "experience that relief in a timely manner."
Charo Ledon is a co-founder of Buenos Vecinos, a nonprofit focused on Latinx health in Washtenaw County. She says the work she's been doing this summer to support both Spanish-speaking citizens and undocumented Latinx residents is in line with the study's finding that the Latinx community had the highest percentage of respondents saying they worry about not having enough food and not being able to pay for utilities. Charo Ledon.
She says many of the Latinx individuals she works with aren't eligible for public assistance or unemployment, and they are leaning on networks of family and friends for help. For instance, county Barrier Busters funds for eviction diversion don't kick in until a resident is so far behind on rent that their landlord is about to begin eviction proceedings.
"Then and only then can you get help with your rent," Ledon says. "People are telling me that they are afraid to allow themselves to get behind on their rent to the point that the landlord would take that kind of action. So lots of people are borrowing, scraping up money from relatives and friends to pay their rent, so that at the end of the day they're in a deep hole of debt just to stay housed."
Researchers were particularly concerned to find that those most affected by COVID-19 expressed the most distrust about a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
"To have 36% of those respondents saying they don't trust it means we need to build a framework and build rapport so that residents feel comfortable with a vaccine being administered," Jackson says.
Alize Asberry Payne, Washtenaw County's racial equity officer, says she is also worried by that trend.
"The communities who were having the highest rate of responding that they personally know someone who has died from COVID are the most resistant to taking a vaccine," she says. "It says we have a lot of work to do to build that trust and get accurate information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. We also have to acknowledge the real, historic reasons why communities of color have distrust in our system. We can't gloss over that. It's something community leaders and institutions have to acknowledge and address."Alize Asberry Payne.
While the study focused on gathering data rather than providing solutions, researchers have a variety of ideas about other ways those leaders and institutions could respond to the survey.
Jackson notes that FEP has an individual development account program, through which residents who save $100 can receive an $800 contribution from FEP. He thinks a similar model could work to help low-income Ypsilanti-area residents build up an emergency fund for the expected second wave of COVID-19. He proposes raising $100,000 to match $3 to every dollar a resident saves.
He also thinks there should be a push to help families navigate the unemployment benefits system and a push to sign families up for checking accounts so that if there is a future stimulus check distribution, "they won't be waiting on the mailman, because it will be automatically deposited."
Payne doesn't have specific programs in mind to address the survey results, but she says the one point she and others emphasized from the beginning was that the information gathered must be acted upon.
"One key point was ensuring that the information we gathered wouldn't disappear into a research void as sometimes happens with these impact studies," she says. "We wanted to make sure the information would go back into the community so people who participated would have a clear understanding of what information was gathered, what we're seeing in terms of impact, and how that information can be utilized to help elected officials and institutions make decisions about how to deploy resources."
More information about the COVID-19 impact study results and a video of the Sept. 17 meeting are available here.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.