Recovery Is Not Enough: Revitalizing America’s Promise During and After the Pandemic
As the country navigates and recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, we have an unprecedented opportunity to fix systems and policies that were broken long before the novel coronavirus arrived.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and magnified economic and societal fault lines that have long been fracturing our nation. These chasms—such as disparities in access to good jobs, quality education, training opportunities, and social capital—often determine whether people are able to keep themselves and their families safe, healthy, and financially secure.
The COVID-19 crisis has also put into plain view just how interdependent we are as people, communities, and economies, and it has exposed what were once seemingly subtle connections among learning, work, and life in unprecedented ways. We must work together to create a more resilient, more prosperous, and more equitable future.
While the United States will once again see safer and better times someday, we should not just focus on bringing things “back to normal.” Prior to COVID-19, economic mobility and advancement were already out of reach for millions. Post-COVID-19, tens of millions more Americans will join the growing list of the economically vulnerable, their opportunities for advancement frozen in place or permanently set back.
While the United States will once again see safer and better times someday, we should not just focus on bringing things “back to normal.
History has shown that not all individuals and not all groups of people fare equally in economic recoveries. That was evident in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The recovery from that downturn accelerated the emergence of a deeply unequal economy marked by widening wealth gaps, increases in student debt, and the creation of large numbers of low-wage jobs that offered little by way of job security, benefits, or opportunities for career advancement.
We must ensure that past mistakes and inequities are not repeated or exacerbated as we rebuild from this crisis. Transformation of our nation’s systems—including digital transformation—will be necessary as we move forward. A key lesson from COVID-19 is that our country’s education, workforce, and other public systems were not prepared to support completely digital operations, much less instantly pivot to full-time online activity when an urgent need arose.
We did not have the capacity to support remote learning, process unprecedented numbers of unemployment claims, or fill critical workforce shortages in fields like health care. Nor did we have systems capable of delivering online supports for those displaced from school and work and those who had difficulty managing the complexities of work and home life because they had lost essential services like child care, public transportation, food assistance, and other necessities. That lack of preparedness had the biggest impact on individuals already left behind in the economy—those in low-wage or hourly jobs; those without reliable access to basic resources such as transportation, child care, or broadband; and those living in economically distressed communities.
A key lesson from COVID-19 is that our country’s education, workforce, and other public systems were not prepared to support completely digital operations.
Leaders and policymakers must act now to put the nation on a solid footing for an equitable economic recovery that fosters economic advancement for all. This is not simply a matter of increasing funding for systems that have long been broken. Policymakers must take actions that reflect the magnitude of the crisis and aim for transformational change by not just rebuilding but also reimagining systems. We need agile, resilient, and integrated systems to ensure that everyone has access to skill development opportunities, the support services they need to succeed in the labor market, and safety nets that will provide essential aid for so many people while the economy recovers. We also need systems that accelerate learning, so individuals can quickly progress along high-quality education and career pathways to enter or re-enter the workforce or make job transitions as needed.
While communities and individuals that were already struggling economically are the ones who are feeling the impact of the pandemic most acutely, the crisis has also revealed how interconnected we are. Our communities and our economy won’t thrive until all people are secure, in good health, and have opportunities to advance along rewarding educational and career pathways.
To build resilient communities that will remain strong in the face of future challenges, we must focus now on driving an equitable economic recovery for all. We can do better. The crisis has already pushed us to visualize innovative new approaches that have led to concrete changes in programs like unemployment insurance. That kind of progress seemed nearly unfathomable just a few months ago. It’s time to build on those advances and take more bold action.