DEI is central to COVID-19 response

Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is more important than ever to help vulnerable members and staff.

April 9, 2020

This article was updated on June 3, 2020.

We may be tempted to put our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work aside until the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis subsides, but our work to advance DEI is needed now more than ever to help vulnerable members and staff weather the COVID-19 crisis.

When there’s a crisis, society’s most vulnerable tend to be hit the hardest. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income people are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis.

Due to a history of segregation, redlining, implicit bias, and structural racism, people of color in all socioeconomic levels “tend to benefit least from a strong U.S. economy, and suffer the most when the economy falls into recession,” according to a new CUNA white paper. This time around is no different.

Health disparities increase vulnerability of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people

Black, Brown, and Indigenous people already face significant health disparities, making them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Structural and environmental racism have resulted in significant disparities in chronic health conditions, including a higher incidence of diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and maternal mortality among Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. In general, they experience worse health outcomes, including premature death, compared to Whites, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Compounding this are health care disparities this group faces, including a higher risk of being uninsured—Hispanic/Latinx are two and a half times more likely to be uninsured than Whites (19.0% vs. 4.3%)—less access to care, language barriers, and discrimination embedded in health care systems. In addition, it is well-documented that low-income rural populations also face significant health disparities often due to lack of health insurance and access to care.

These health disparities make Black, Brown, and Indigenous people more vulnerable to the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a report from PBS News Hour. In fact, according to an analysis by the American Public Media Research Lab of data from the 39 states and the District of Columbia that are reporting the race and ethnicity of residents who have died from COVID-19, African Americans are dying at a disproportionately high rate compared to other groups and higher than their proportion of the population. While African Americans make up 13% of the population in these places, they represent 27% of the COVID-19 deaths for which race is known. Hispanics or Latinx represent 18% of the population in these areas and around 16% of the deaths and Whites comprise 62% of the population and 49% of the deaths. Finally, Asian Americans make up 5% of the population and 5% of the deaths.

Further, a history of housing discrimination and segregation has led to Black and Brown people living in densely populated urban areas where the coronavirus is more widespread and research finds that it is harder to social distance.

Higher risk jobs plus income and wealth inequality increases financial fragility of vulnerable groups amid COVID-19

Black and Brown workers’ lives and livelihoods are also at a higher risk due to COVID-19 because they work in higher risk jobs. They’re either higher risk because they’re deemed essential, which increases their exposure to the virus and puts their lives at risk or because a disproportionate share of them work in industries that are at the highest risk for job losses due to COVID-19, putting their livelihoods at risk. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that Black workers comprise 11.9% of all employees in the U.S., but 17% of frontline workers. In New York City, 75% of all frontline workers are Black and Brown people. This is contributing to the disproportionate rate of death where Black and Latino people in New York City are dying at twice the rate of Whites.

Moreover, a poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post finds higher rates of job losses among low-income workers, Black and Brown people, and women without college degrees. Indeed, April data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while White unemployment in the U.S. hit 14.2% (up from 4.0% in March), it reached 16.7% for Black/African Americans (up from 6.7% in March) and 18.9% for Hispanic/Latinx (up from 6.0% in March).

COVID-19 is also having a disproportionate economic impact on the poorest. A Gallup poll finds that 95% of workers in low-income households—those making less than $36,000 per year—have been laid off (37%) or lost income (58%) due to the coronavirus outbreak. While middle and upper-income households have also experienced economic disruption, it is much less compared to low-income workers. For example, nearly 40% of workers whose household income is between $90,000 and $180,000 have been laid off (12%) or lost income (26%).

A similar poll by the Morning Consult finds that a higher percentage of Black/African American adults (44%) and Hispanic/Latinx adults (61%) say they have either taken a pay cut or lost a job or both due to the pandemic compared to Whites (38%).

We also know that typical households of color face significant income and wealth disparities, which increases their financial vulnerability and makes it more challenging to weather economic downturns. For example, the latest data available from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance shows that the typical White household’s wealth ($171,000) is ten times that of the typical Black household’s wealth ($17,400) and over eight times that of the typical Hispanic/Latinx household’s wealth ($20,400).

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report shows that in 2018, U.S. median household income reached an all-time high of $63,179. But not all groups did equally well.

The median household income was $70,642 for White households, $51,450 for Hispanic/Latinx households, $41,361 for Black households, and $87,194 for Asian households. This income disparity has persisted since the late 1960s. To compound this, a survey by Morning Consult for CUNA finds that a higher percentage of Hispanic/Latinx (57%), Black/African Americans (63%) say their income has been impacted by COVID-19.

Further, research conducted by the Pew Research Center finds that Black and Brown households are particularly vulnerable when faced with financial emergencies. For example, a typical White household has slightly more than one month’s income in liquid savings while typical Hispanic/Latinx and Black/African American households have just 12 and five days’ worth, respectively, Pew reports. It’s not surprising then, that the Morning Consult survey finds that while nearly a quarter of all adults (24%) are concerned about making their minimum bill payments during the COVID-19 crisis, a higher percentage of low-income adults (37%) and Black adults (36%) and more than half of adults in the “other” racial group (52%) say that they are concerned about being able to pay the minimum on their bills.

Taken together, this data suggests the typical household of color will be especially challenged by the COVID-19 recession.

NEXT: Using DEI to shape our COVID-19 response

In addition to asking about how individuals have been financially impacted by COVID-19, the Morning Consult survey also asked about people’s financial needs during this time. Specifically, the Morning Consult survey asked what financial solutions would be most helpful. Restructuring loans and mortgages to lower monthly payments, delaying payments on existing home mortgages and loans, and cash donations to local charity groups (e.g., local food banks, shelters, medical clinics) emerged as the most helpful (i.e., “very helpful”) for all adults and across income and racial/ethnic groups. By contrast, a smaller percentage of all U.S. adults irrespective of income or racial/ethnic group say that that small-dollar loans with 3 months deferred payment would be a very helpful financial solution. By far the largest percentage of Black adults say that a 90-day credit card payment deferral would be a very helpful financial solution.  

Using DEI to shape our COVID-19 response

Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of all socioeconomic levels are often underserved, face additional barriers, and may have different preferences and needs when it comes to financial services, according to the Filene Research Institute.

We know the COVID-19 crisis is threatening the financial health of households of color and low-income households, rendering both particularly vulnerable. Using a DEI lens in our efforts to meet the needs of our most vulnerable members will help to ensure we explicitly consider their situation and are intentional in our efforts to address their needs.

Here are six ways to use a DEI lens in crafting responses to COVID-19 to help our most vulnerable members and staff:

1. Know the pain points for vulnerable populations

Credit unions across the nation have quickly responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a robust suite of responses that line up with the financial needs expressed by consumers. Take stock of particular challenges vulnerable populations face to ensure that you’re responsive to their needs.

These challenges include:

  • Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are unbanked or underbanked at a higher rate than Whites, in part because they tend to distrust financial institutions, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. This makes it even more important to ensure they know their money is safe at their credit union and that credit unions are their financial partners committed to helping them get the financial assistance they need.
  • Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are more likely to live in multigenerational households, work in vulnerable industries, and have a higher likelihood of job loss or financial hardship due to COVID-19 related deaths in the family. These have ripple effects beyond the immediate nuclear family, making efforts to support their financial well-being through, for example, forbearance on loans and emergency small dollar loans, critical.
  • Low-income individuals are likely to have an urgent need for rapid access to emergency small dollar loans, with flexible terms and underwriting, to cover rent, utilities, food, and other basic needs.
  • Vulnerable populations need quick check-cashing options and loan modifications like payment extensions in a way that doesn’t affect their credit score.

Credit unions can support vulnerable populations during these difficult financial times by continuing to provide financial counseling and debt consolidation assistance.

2. Ask the right questions

When making changes to your organization, products, and services, ask who benefits. How are you supporting the most vulnerable? Who might be harmed? What unintentional consequences should you consider?

Consider insights your frontline staff may have regarding member needs. They will have a finger on the pulse of a dynamic environment.

3. Use an equity lens in your communications

If you have members who are non-English speakers, translate your COVID-19 communications into the relevant language and make it accessible via multiple channels (i.e., website, email, and flyers posted in branches). Coopera, for example, has developed useful COVID-19 related Spanish-language resources for credit unions.

Also, consider staffing your branches and phone lines with bilingual staff so non-English speaking members can receive equitable service.

4. Consider unequal access to technology

Some members may not have smartphones, tablets, or computers. This poses a barrier to their access to online banking and information about their credit union’s COVID-19 response.

Drive-thru windows, ATMs, phone service, and informational flyers posted on credit union branch doors/windows are a few ways to address this challenge.

Staff members who are asked to work remotely may similarly not have access to technology or internet service, making loaner laptops and assistance with access to internet service important.

5. Practice inclusive leadership

This will be critical to staff morale. This means creating a virtual community through regular virtual updates and check-ins where you listen to staff about how they’re feeling, acknowledge their critical role on the front lines, reaffirm your commitment to keeping employees safe, and ask what the credit union can do to make sure they have what they need to continue to serve members.

For more on inclusive leadership during a pandemic, check out this article by the Filene Research Institute.

6. Practice humility, virtual community, and self-care

We are living in highly uncertain times with no playbook to follow. So, connecting with others who face similar challenges may ease our burden.

This might mean connecting with peers at other credit unions through virtual check-ins, emails, or phone calls. Or credit union leadership and staff could share how they’re juggling working from home on their own or with kids (the two- or four-legged variety).

Recognize that uncertainty and moments of crisis are incredibly stressful. Make time to tend to your own physical and emotional needs. Doing so allows all of us to refuel and bring our best and most authentic self to work.

Recognize that while all of us are affected, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income people are among the most vulnerable. Using a DEI lens to develop our response to COVID-19 will ensure we explicitly consider the needs of our most vulnerable members and staff and work to support them.

Our cooperative values, people-helping-people philosophy, and democratic structure mean our success is bound up in that of our members. Ultimately, all will benefit when we work to support the most vulnerable.

We’re in this together.

SAMIRA SALEM is vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Credit Union National Association.