COVID at 1 Year: From response to recovery using the City Health Dashboard

Apr. 21, 2021

Samantha Breslin & Alex Chen

Last year, COVID-19 changed everything. Seemingly overnight, a virus had swept around the world, affecting daily life in countless ways: storefronts and schools closed, people could no longer safely go to work or even leave their homes, and the economy was forced to shut down. Today, we look back on this year and what it means for the economic fabric of cities and communities, focusing on how cities can use data to drive recovery and support those most affected by COVID’s sweeping social and economic impacts. While COVID has surely impacted mental health, social cohesion, and many other parts of daily life, we’ll focus on housing and employment, two critical components of well-being.

Rising unemployment

Years of research have shown that those who are unemployed are less likely to have access to insurance and health care services and are more likely to delay medical care due to financial concerns. Amidst a pandemic, especially, ensuring sufficient and equitable access to care is crucial to promoting health and well-being. However, within weeks of the COVID-related economic shutdowns, millions of Americans had filed claims for unemployment insurance, a surge not seen in America since the Great Depression. In order to better reflect the quickly changing job market and its impacts on population health, the City Health Dashboard in November 2020 added a new, more current unemployment measure.

This new unemployment measure, derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Local Area Unemployment Statistics, assesses the monthly percentage of the civilian labor force 16 or older unemployed and actively seeking work. This measure gives a month-by-month snapshot of unemployment at the city-level going back to 2018, with only a 2-3 month lag. Used alongside our annual unemployment measure, which is available at the census-tract level but is lagged by about 2 years, communities can explore short-term and longer-term unemployment trends and patterns between and within cities.

A housing system in crisis

Job loss has left many unsure how to meet basic expenses like food, bills, child care, and rent or mortgage payments. Before the pandemic hit last March, millions of Americans were already struggling to afford housing costs. In 2018, 35.8% of households in the Dashboard’s cities were considered cost-burdened, meaning 30% or more of their income was spent on housing-related costs. 34 of the Dashboard’s cities entered the pandemic in a more dire situation, with over 50% of their households struggling with excessive housing cost. Increased unemployment due to COVID-19-related economic shutdowns can only exacerbate this affordable housing emergency.

Governments at every level have stepped in and enacted policies like eviction moratoriums and rental assistance programs to keep people in their homes and able to focus on staying healthy, finding a job, and taking care of their families.

The Dashboard’s excessive housing cost measure is available at the neighborhood-level so municipal governments can guide resources efficiently. This measure can support city leaders as they target housing interventions across communities to ensure those who need assistance most are able to receive this necessary help.

Moving from response to recovery: How can the Dashboard help?

With more COVID vaccinations administered every day, businesses reopening, and stimulus funding reaching the pockets of millions to support the industries impacted by the pandemic, glimpses of a new normal have started to appear. After a year of unimaginable trauma, cities and their residents are beginning to enter the next phase of the pandemic: recovery and rebuilding.

The City Health Dashboard can support recovery efforts in a number of ways. In combining city and neighborhood-level health data with data on the factors that drive health, such as unemployment, housing affordability, and insurance coverage, users can easily see where their cities or neighborhoods stand and are better able to spot disparities. Our unemployment metrics, excessive housing cost metric, and the COVID Local Risk Index can provide policymakers, health departments, community organizations, and others with information about the geographic distribution of various health & socioeconomic burdens and help them respond to both short-term and long-term challenges.

Our demographic maps and tables provide another critical layer of information, displaying where different groups of people live in each city. Subgroup population breakdowns are available for Asian and Hispanic groups (ex., Chinese, Pakistani, Cuban, and Dominican) and provide important cultural context that enable interventions to better serve residents. These data also partially address the racial-ethnic data gap and give leaders new tools for addressing racial equity in community rebuilding efforts and beyond.

All of this information, along with the diverse resources provided in the Dashboard’s Take Action center, can equip users to move from data to action, from response to recovery. These tools can help city leaders search for evidence-based programs and policies, including those specific to unemployment and housing instability, find partners for collaboration, and explore strategies like this framework from PolicyLink that centers racial equity into COVID-19 housing recovery.

The work ahead will be immense. But there is an opportunity to think outside the box of what we once considered possible, expand the seats at the table to include and elevate more diverse voices, and invest in innovative cross-sectoral solutions that create stronger, healthier, more equitable communities for all of us.

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