Last week the Boston Foundation’s research group, Boston Indicators, launched the COVID Community Data Lab. It’s a dynamic website developed in collaboration with other researchers that updates a combination of metrics tracking different ways the current public health crisis and its ripple effects are playing out across our community. This week a public online forum debuted and discussed the work with a panel including researchers Luc Schuster (Boston Indicators), Abby Raisz and Mark Melnik (UMass Donahue Institute), Tom Hopper (Massahusetts Housing Partnership, or MHP) and Dr. Myechia Minter-Jordan, President and CEO for the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement and Catalyst Institute and member of the Boston Foundation Board of Directors. Boston Foundation Vice President of Strategy and Operations Stephen Chan introduced the forum, emphasizing that the Data Lab’s work is not meant to track our way back to “normal,” but to more broadly shared growth across our community.
Indeed, as Boston Indicators Director Luc Schuster put it early in his presentation of Data Lab findings, “In many ways the ‘normal’ that existed before the pandemic is part of the problem.” In looking at data pulled from several sources on economic issues, it’s clear that the crisis exacerbates an underlying inequity. For instance, one stat shows that 40 percent of households earning less than $40,000 annually had someone lose a job in March. Other figures like this confirm the anecdotal hunch that the harshest public health and economic repercussions are hitting our most vulnerable residents.
Raisz pointed out the data on COVID-19 distribution by municipality and population, paraphrasing an observation of the Boston Globe’s that this disease is not a great equalizer but a great revealer of inequity. The hardest hit people are those living in overcrowded housing—it’s not about dense neighborhoods, but number of people per room. The next hardest hit are essential workers. Often these two groups overlap heavily, where low-paid food service and cleaning workers often double up in housing in our high-rent region. MHP’s Hopper shared that rent collection has been surprisingly consistent through the end of April, but raised the question of whether we are just kicking the problem down the road if temporary financial supports are not renewed.
Minter-Jordan spoke not only as a physician and a former leader of a community health center, but also as a member of Mayor Walsh’s COVID-19 Inequities Task Force. The pandemic highlights sharply the impacts of the social determinants of health, she said, and so many of those determinants are the legacy of structural and socioeconomic barriers put in place by discriminatory policies. Neighborhoods that are food deserts are where frontline workers live, for instance. Poor food access leads to preexisting conditions that make people more susceptible to the pandemic. Workers in lower-income jobs often have lower quality health care, if any. So if we introduce more testing, then what? These workers ask, “Can I afford care? Will ICE detain me if I go for care? Will I lose my job if I take sick days?” Considerations for next steps are more complex than they may appear. “The information presented today will help us better direct resources with an equity lens. We need data like this to drive decisions,” she said.
Watch the Data Lab for updates and new metrics, and drop Boston Indicators a line if you have ideas for interesting data sources.