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The Economic Tsunami Effect of COVID-19 on Latinos in Illinois

  ·  Sylvia Puente

This is an op-ed republished from Crain's Chicago. Click here to read this article on Crain's.

The data is clear: Illinois communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has been an especially devastating blow for the Latino community, which now has the most reported positive cases in the state, as well as its highest percentage of positive test results.

Take a look at the numbers behind the work lives of Latinos, and it’s not hard to see how this happened. Only 16 percent of Latinos are able to work from home, which is lowest among all racial-ethnic groups. This spells serious danger for all those who can’t.

One scenario is that they are simply still going to work, risking their health and that of their families. Sixty-nine percent of Latino households in Illinois are multi-generational, and many are overcrowded, which increases the risk of COVID-19 spreading throughout the house—including to those in the older, at-risk age range.

The other, of course, is that they are now out of work. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Latinos are overrepresented in occupations that have been shut down during this crisis, such as hospitality and restaurants.

For Latinos in Illinois, the disproportionate economic damage that they’ve suffered in addition to the tragic physical toll is a crisis within a crisis. It’s hurting the entire state.

Before the crisis, Latinos were already financially vulnerable: 60 percent of Latino workers earn under $15 an hour, which is the highest percentage among all racial-ethnic groups. A recent national survey found that one in three Latino households has less than $100 in savings, and half have less than $500.

At the same time, Latinos are driving Illinois’ labor-market growth and pulling more than their own weight economically. They are the largest minority contributors to the total buying power in the state of Illinois, with over $63 billion in 2019.

Yet many Latinos are being denied federal stimulus checks. Under the CARES Act, couples who file their taxes jointly both must have valid Social Security numbers, or they and their children will be ineligible for these checks.

We know that roughly 200,000 family households in Illinois have at least one undocumented member. If a family of four would otherwise receive $3,400 in stimulus funds—$1,200 each for two adults and $500 each for two children—that comes out to almost $700 million in federal stimulus funds being denied to these families, simply because one member is undocumented. They are being denied these funds even though they pay taxes. In 2017, undocumented Illinois residents paid over $758 million in state and local taxes.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 71 percent of the undocumented population in Illinois is Latino. Approximately 17 percent of Illinois Latinos are undocumented.

As the world struggles with this crisis, many Latinos and immigrants in Illinois are now out of work, ineligible for relief funding, and ineligible for unemployment benefits. Some are unable to provide for their families.

This economic tsunami effect will not be self-contained to these communities. These are some of Illinois’ most powerful economic contributors; their devastation is the state’s devastation.

As government, philanthropy, businesses, healthcare, higher education and other institutions of power develop economic relief strategies, this reality must not be overlooked. Inclusion of all Illinoisans is essential to the recovery and economic interest of the state.

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