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Chairman Yarmuth Opening Statement at Virtual Hearing on Health and Wealth Inequality in America: How COVID-19 Makes Clear the Need for Change

Jun 23, 2020

Washington, D.C.— Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the following opening statement at today’s virtual hearing  examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America’s underlying health and economic inequalities and disproportionately impacted Americans of color. Remarks as prepared are below:

The word unprecedented is often overused, but right now what we are facing as a nation and as society is truly unprecedented. We are simultaneously battling a global pandemic as the coronavirus rages on; an economic free fall from business closures and waves of mass unemployment; and a crisis of conscience as we grapple with the deadly effects of entrenched, systematic racism in our country. Nearly every American has experienced uncertainty, and far too many extreme hardships during the last several months. But these crises have something else in common: they all disproportionately impact Americans of color.

Today, the Budget Committee will examine one aspect of this - the underlying health and economic inequalities that have exacerbated COVID-19’s impact on our minority communities. Historic and persistent racial disparities in income, employment, education, wealth, health care, housing, and more have made Americans of color more vulnerable to the virus – both in terms of health and economic status.

Nowhere is the disproportionate impact of coronavirus clearer than in the virus’ death rates. If Black and Latino Americans died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, at least 14,400 Black Americans and 1,200 Latinos would still be alive today.

While the CDC may not list structural racism as one of the chronic conditions putting people at a higher risk for severe COVID-19 disease, long-term health inequities and barriers to accessing quality, affordable health care have made communities of color more vulnerable to serious illness and death from coronavirus. Where you live, where you work, and how you get to work all influence health status and outcomes, and more often than not, it’s to the detriment of Black and Latino families.

These longstanding inequities are only hard to see if you refuse to look. And when it comes to economic injustice, the facts are plentiful. In terms of median household earnings, the most recent Census data shows that for that every dollar a white family earns, a Latino family earns 73 cents while a Black family earns just 59 cents. Decades of income inequality and the resulting wealth gap have left Black and Latino Americans with less savings, and far less ability to weather a serious health emergency or economic crisis – today families are battling both.

The same households that had less going into this economic crisis have faced far more lay-offs and job loss. While all groups have seen a historic rise in unemployment compared to pre-pandemic levels, the May 2020 unemployment rates for Black and Latino Americans were substantially higher than for white Americans. The pandemic has redefined essential work and while Black and Latino workers compose 29% of the national workforce, they account for 34% of frontline workers. Every day, they are forced to choose between their health and a paycheck. Despite this, many of these workers still do not have access to paid leave or hazard pay and more than one in four frontline workers have said the coronavirus has made it harder to meet their basic needs.

But workers aren’t the only ones whose daily life has been upended. The coronavirus has led to widespread school closures across communities, and children of color may be impacted the most. One study estimated that, while the average white student may lose about six months of learning, the average Latino student may lose nine months and the average Black student may lose ten months. Without action, this could exacerbate graduation rate disparities among students of color, further perpetuating economic inequality for generations to come.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in our systems and laid bare the underlying inequities that have existed in the United States for generations – in our health care system, our economy, in education, and in our justice systems. It threatens to widen the economic chasm between white Americans and Americans of color. If not contained and reversed, we will not only jeopardize the future of millions of American families, we risk the well-being of our nation.

As we look toward the next phase of recovery efforts, we must strive for structural change that will not only help our economy recover but also help more people – specifically people of color – prosper when it does. We cannot be foolish enough to think that a rising tide will lift all boats. If we are, we will sink the country.

This has to be a turning point. There is too much need, too much pain, and too much anger for Congress to do little or nothing.

I know we cannot end institutional racism overnight. But we can certainly start.

We can build a stronger nation, a more inclusive economy, and an America that better reflects our values – and that is what I hope to focus on today.

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