Breaking the Cycle of Inequity: Looking at History and the Present

By Robert Phillips, President and CEO, Alluma

Government is essential to fostering equity and making improvements in people's lives. And yet, since our nation's inception, the government has also played a key role in creating and maintaining racial inequity.

This is the paradox we must confront and overcome if we truly want to build a fair safety net, which truly works for people when they need it. Overcoming this paradox requires us to revisit and repair foundational flaws in the way social support programs are implemented, operated, and maintained. These are not small tasks, especially for public leaders already overburdened with a pandemic.

I recently had a conversation about these issues with Anna Gorman, Director of Community Partnerships and Programs at the LA County Department of Public Health, and Marko Mijic, the Deputy Secretary of California Health and Human Services, the state of California. Our discussion zeroed in on how we can break the cycle of inequity that has been perpetuated by flawed systems that have, either by design or by the improper implementation, poorly served the people who most need support. This cycle has been laid bare by the cracks showing up in the safety net during the pandemic and economic downturn. Anna’s and Marko’s willingness to have this hard conversation in a transparent and honest way is a testament to their commitment to figuring this out.

Racism is endemic in our public policies and programs

Early in our conversation, the long history of racism in the development of America's social safety net was identified as being inextricably linked with how our modern-day patchwork of safety net programs functions.

From the Mothers’ Pension programs started in the 1890s, widely seen as the beginning of the modern American social safety net, Black women were explicitly excluded as not to interfere with the service economy of the North and the farm economy of the South. This continued through core New Deal programs created under the Social Security Act of 1935 that reinforced the South's sharecropping system and explicitly excluded personal service workers, locking out two-thirds of Black workers at the time from unemployment insurance. This would continue to Reagan’s "Welfare Queen" narrative in the 1980s and later to Clinton’s 1996 racialized welfare reform and workfare programs, which carry on to today.

Today’s safety net programs perpetuate this racism and exacerbate inequity in the way they are administered. They do this without examination of how this history has been used to drive norms and standards. Disguised under terminology like "work requirements," "family caps," "drug testing," and "resource limits,'' most programs are administered in a way that is fundamentally rooted in racism, oppression, paternalism, and our nation’s long history with all three. Ultimately framing access to benefits in terms of "deserving" versus "undeserving" relies on perpetuating false narratives about people who need help.


Today’s safety net programs perpetuate this racism and exacerbate inequity in the way they are administered. They do this without examination of how this history has been used to drive norms and standards.


For example, when agencies direct staff to consider an applicant's criminal history as a basis for reasonable suspicion in drug testing, people of color suffer the consequences of disparate policing of drug use in their communities. When agencies impose resource limits with exclusions for homeownership, again, people of color experience compounded barriers due to historic and systemic racism that excluded Black, Latinx, and Asian people from home-buying opportunities.

It is telling that the CARES Act — designed to help all Americans during the pandemic — had none of these requirements. It is not hard to imagine that if stimulus checks were just going to poor people, there would be a lot more hoops people would need to jump through in order to receive them.

But historically, agencies that run public programs continue to oppress program participants in another way, too — they don’t get insight or feedback to learn how to improve programs, especially when it comes to making them more accessible to those who may need them the most.

As Anna explained, “Policy doesn't go far enough. Within our program, we think about how we can involve our participants more so that they have a say. How can we ensure language access? How do we ensure that all people have the same access to what they need to know as everybody else in the program?”


"One of the things that we are trying to work on is figuring out how we standardize and become more modernized in the technology that we use. Many [government] systems are outdated, and the way they communicate with people is not the 21st century."


Meanwhile, Marko underscored that technology can also be an obstacle to equitable access, observing that the pervasive language and technology barriers restrict access to safety net programs for people who need help. This keeps government and nonprofit organizations from effectively and efficiently serving their communities. "You go to a government website, and it is utterly bureaucratic, it is difficult to navigate," he said. "One of the things that we are trying to work on is figuring out how we standardize and become more modernized in the technology that we use. Many of our systems are outdated, and the way they communicate with people is not the 21st century."

Alluma: Learning from history to create a better future

At Alluma, we are dedicated to helping the public, and nonprofit sectors meet these challenges head-on. Our very mission is to eliminate barriers to getting people connected to help so that all people have access to support and services when they need it.

We do this in part by helping program leaders take a hard look at who their programs are truly designed to serve and the intent behind the public policy used to create them. We help program leaders better understand the values, preferences, and experiences of the past that have driven the inequities we see in how these programs work today.

Once we can pinpoint why these programs work the way they do and how they often disadvantage the very people they are meant to serve, we can help them design a better way.

This part of the process starts with engaging with people who truly find themselves in need of these programs. By hearing about their experience and what they need to make these programs actually work, we can design true people-centered solutions. For example, we can create easy-to-use, accessible online program applications — in multiple languages — that don't require an in-person visit to a social services office for that single mom struggling to care for three young kids. We can streamline a process so that a family no longer has to complete three totally different applications for three different programs, to qualify a family for basic needs like food and healthcare.

Having these conversations with insightful leaders like Anna and Marko helps us learn more about how these programs operate today, their continued deficits, and what kinds of changes thoughtful leaders are beginning to examine. As we continue our work as Alluma to make the safety net work for those who need it, dialogue with both program participants and program leaders will continue to be essential.


Robert Phillips leads the strategic direction, fiscal stewardship, daily operations, and overall management of Alluma as CEO. A healthcare advocate and philanthropist, Robert joined the Board of Alluma (then Social Interest Solutions) in 2006, and became President of the Board and CEO in 2017. Follow Robert on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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