By Gerald Chertavian | March 27, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly disrupted life and work across the globe. We are all grappling with uncertainty around how long this will last and what enduring ramifications we will see across our communities. In a country already suffering from rising income inequality, it is more important than ever to ensure that the most economically vulnerable Americans do not fall further in the months and year ahead. As America braces in the current moment and recovers in its aftermath, non-profit organizations and civic leaders will be on the frontlines of supporting the most at-risk groups.

Research shows that the coronavirus will exacerbate economic inequality and will have the most detrimental impact on those who were already vulnerable before the pandemic. This includes low-income workers, part-time employees, and contractors – and, in particular, individuals who have not had access to economic opportunity and/or mobility because of their race, gender, educational background, or lack of social network.

Opportunity Youth (the nearly five million young people disconnected from education and the workforce) exemplify the group of workers most likely to be adversely affected by Coronavirus. Most of Year Up’s talented students work in retail or food service in addition to their full-time commitment to our program, which offers a modest stipend. On a good day, this requires a grueling schedule, a lot of grit, and diligent budgeting to make ends meet. Now, that diligent budgeting will face gaping holes as students start to lose their part-time jobs for reasons beyond their control.

Moreover, as we collectively shift to virtual work and learning environments, we know that many Opportunity Youth and other vulnerable populations are likely to experience unstable home environments or lack access to reliable resources like stable internet and daily community support. We, like so many organizations, are creatively managing these challenges. But we know that our students will be under severe mental and economic stress during this time, and that the promise of transforming their lives – the very reason they joined Year Up to begin with – may start to feel elusive to them again.

Like healthcare workers, many non-profit workers will need to offer “expert mercy” – a combination of expertise and empathy, as global health expert Paul Farmer so aptly calls it – to their beneficiaries in the coming months. Even as government measures start to offer relief, civic groups on the ground will fill the gaps in myriad ways to provide additional financial support, food and shelter, physical and mental health resources, and ongoing coaching. As a part of the backbone of strong communities, non-profit organizations are well-positioned to do this work. It is essential that governments at the local, state, and federal levels provide significant support for non-profit organizations in this moment.

As we look to the future, preserving and growing proven programs that lift people out of poverty and place them into gainful employment will be paramount. Some estimates predict that the unemployment rate could climb to as high as 20-30% by the end of the year. Job training programs will be critical intermediaries in helping millions of Americans reskill and restart, increasingly through digital delivery. Our ability to include all people – regardless of their zip code, race, or education level – in economic recovery efforts will rest on tight coordination and partnership between government, business, and non-profit organizations who serve the most vulnerable.

In this time of crisis, we have an even greater responsibility to live up to our values. We must double down on our collective action to protect those most vulnerable to the economic impact of this disease. Our recovery and prosperity as a nation depend on it.

Read more of Gerald’s work here.