As our nation confronts the most dangerous pandemic in over 100 years, public health officials warn that the actions we take now have enormous public health implications: they could save hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives. Our actions in the coming days, weeks, and months are equally consequential for the future of our economy, our political institutions, and the larger social order. Will we work to correct the vulnerabilities that the pandemic has exposed: to repair and strengthen our safety net, reduce the inequities that undermine our nation’s moral fiber and threaten our collective health and security, bridge the partisan and ideological divides that make us weaker, and renew our commitment to effective government that serves the broader public good? Or will we continue on a different path?
In addition to using their resources to help meet immediate human needs related to healthcare, food, shelter, and basic economic security, philanthropists should consider these questions about the future of our society now—and lean into the public policy arena, where politicians and special interests are already shaping decisions that will determine the nation’s political and economic future. Here are four priority areas:
- Support all Americans impacted by COVID-19’s economic fallout by permanently strengthening the nation’s safety net. As social distancing measures bring our economy to a near-standstill, hundreds of thousands of small businesses are shuttering and millions of workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries, the gig economy, and elsewhere are losing their jobs, most with little savings to fall back on and many without recourse to unemployment insurance. The federal government is taking steps to provide economic stimulus, but there will be a need for ongoing advocacy for aggressive measures to support vulnerable families as the crisis deepens—and to build a stronger economic safety net that will endure into the future. Philanthropists can support advocacy initiatives like the Economic Security Project, which is calling for direct cash payments to Americans during the crisis effort, while at the same time advocating for a permanent system of universal basic income that would provide a base level of financial security for all Americans.
- Expand and sustain access to health care and paid time off for all Americans. Nearly 28 million Americans still lack health insurance and almost a quarter of US civilian workers—close to 34 million people—do not have paid sick leave. The pandemic demonstrates that this moral blight is also a major public health vulnerability: when some Americans lack access to health care and paid sick leave, everyone’s health is threatened. Through the Paid Leave for All campaign and the Paid Family and Medical Leave Fund at New Venture Fund, philanthropists can support the implementation of new federal measures to provide workers with both paid sick days and extended paid family and medical leave during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as campaigns to expand and sustain paid sick and family leave for all over the longer term. Philanthropists can also support advocacy groups such as Community Catalyst that are working to ensure access to health care for all Americans.
- Ensure the safe and democratic implementation of the 2020 elections, and make future elections more representative of the country. The pandemic threatens to disrupt administration of the 2020 elections. Crowded polling sites will present real public health concerns if the virus is still widespread in November. Forcing people to choose between their health and voting could depress turnout and undermine the legitimacy of the election – or generate pressure to postpone the election entirely. Expansion of early voting and vote-by-mail could mitigate these threats, helping to protect the continuity of the electoral process, facilitate broad voter participation, and safeguard the legitimacy of the elections. Making these measures permanent would ensure that our future elections are more democratic and representative of the entire citizenry. The Voting Rights Lab is ramping up state and federal advocacy to expand vote-by-mail in 2020. Democracy Fund is a leading philanthropy supporting efforts to safeguard the administration and integrity of the 2020 elections that can be a resource and thought partner to other philanthropists on this issue. In addition, many pooled donor funds, such as the Heartland Fund, are focused on ensuring that historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities participate in the elections, despite the daunting barriers of the public health crisis.
- Promote social cohesion and prevent fearmongering and the scapegoating of vulnerable communities. The pandemic is an historic inflection point for the nation: we can either come together in a spirit of solidarity and service or we can we devolve into self-preservation and fearmongering in ways that rend the social fabric and make us all worse off. Any narrative that scapegoats foreigners or stokes xenophobia is both immoral and counterproductive. Undocumented immigrants, who lack health care or may be fearful of accessing it, are likely to be hit particularly hard by the virus and to be falsely demonized for bringing disease and disorder into the country. Disinformation campaigns on the part of both foreign and domestic actors are already seeking to amplify such narratives. Nellie Mae Education Foundation has established a rapid response fund, Racism is a Virus Too, aimed at protecting the safety and well-being of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities that are experiencing racist scapegoating and violence. Other philanthropists should follow their lead, lest hate and fear spread alongside the virus.
This is an extraordinary moment, one that demands an extraordinary response from philanthropy. Philanthropists will need to open their coffers, often as never before, in order to support efforts to preserve life, protect the well-being of our most vulnerable, safeguard our institutions, and steer the country toward a better and stronger future. The time to act is now. Tomorrow, it will be too late.
About the Author: Loren McArthur is a senior director and senior advocacy lead on Arabella’s advisory team. He works on a range of strategy, evaluation, and donor collaboration projects with institutional, corporate, and family clients, with a focus on helping donors develop and execute high-impact advocacy strategies.