The 2022 commemoration of Black History Month is shining an all-important spotlight on Black health and wellness. As a community ally, JobsFirstNYC supports the call to implement sustainable infrastructure geared to remedy complex issues around wellness that threaten to stifle the emergence of a healthy and prosperous black middle class. At JobsFirstNYC, our mission is to create and advance solutions that break down barriers and transform the systems supporting young adults and their communities in the pursuit of economic mobility. We bring together — effectively and efficiently — all available community, corporate, human, organizational, private, and public resources to connect young adults to the economic life of New York City, and our experience tells us that effective transformative solutions for young people must include considerations for improved health and wellness. Both preventative healthcare and ongoing access to medical help is crucial to achieving a good quality of life.
The focus on Black health and wellness is especially timely, as President Biden’s Build Back Better Bill, has just been declared “dead” by Sen. Joe Manchin. At a time when data shows that COVID-19 is affecting Black and other people of color the most, this $1.8 trillion bill would have been a critical resource to reverse this deadly trend. The Bill — which included key provisions to ensure better access to home and community-based care, expansion of the child tax credit, lower prices for prescription medication, safe and clean housing as well as mental health services for underserved communities — is crucial. The healthcare aspirations of Build Back Better would also set the stage for Black people to explore customized initiatives that address the unique needs within their own communities.
So even though Build Back Better has been set aside for now, we cannot give up on the campaign to correct an unjust healthcare system in America. We should insist that legislators return to the discussion table with pragmatic solutions, as inadequate healthcare for families presents multiple barriers for young people trying to better themselves and their communities. Simply put, health and wellness cannot be erased from the national agenda.
If the deaths and illnesses from COVID-19 were not enough, the mental health crisis that it has triggered among young Black people has been crushing. The financial and mental fatigue from fighting a more than two-year-long, unyielding pandemic is pushing the most disadvantaged young people away from college pursuits and long-term career pathways. In 2020, The United Negro College Fund published its Student Pulse Survey COVID-19 impact on Fall 2020 educational plans where one student reported that, “Due to COVID-19, so much has gone wrong for me and my family. We only have each other now. It has [been] a struggle to pay bills and to keep the internet on [and] everyone in my apartment complex uses the same internet server and it’s very slow which led to complications trying to finish out the semester.”
The cry for attention to mental health was also echoed by Dr. Donna Jones, Superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District in Suffolk County, NY, and President of the Greater New York Chapter of the Links, Inc. during a Ring the Alarm: Mental Health & Black Youth 2021 MLK Day panel discussion, where she noted that “They [black youth] are sincerely confused. There is an increased level of absenteeism and disengagement among their children. There’s an increased sentiment of despair, due to the isolation. There’s so much uncertainty that their grades are being affected and they’re having difficulty adapting to change.”
Of course, we should not forget that COVID-19 has tipped off an exodus from low-wage, high-demand jobs like those in healthcare, hospitality, and restaurant industries that are disproportionately held by Black people. In 2021, McKinsey reported that “Our analysis found that 45 percent of Black private-sector workers (approximately 6.7 million people) work in three industries that have a large frontline-service presence: healthcare, retail, and accommodation and food service” and according to Time Magazine a part of the reason for the exodus from these jobs is that, “Low-wage jobs often lack opportunities for career growth. A crumbling childcare industry is driving up daycare costs, making work unaffordable. Those who have remained in jobs face increasing responsibility and grueling work conditions punctuated by fears of the next variant of COVID-19.”
In the face of these numerous barriers to a healthy and equitable recovery, JobsFirstNYC is challenging New York legislators to outline and enact clear policies that prioritize community healthcare to the underserved Black communities in all five New York City boroughs.
There is already a blueprint to follow and expand on. Last year, the House passed the H.R.1475 – Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, which has since been introduced in the Senate as S.1975-Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act. This bill will establish and expand programs to address racial and ethnic disparities in mental health. According to the bill’s sponsors, S.1975-Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act seeks to address mental health issues for youth, particularly youth of color. In particular, Sec 555 spells out a mandate to “ensure full participation of, and engage, both consumers and community members in the development and implementation of materials; and…seek to broaden the perspective among both individuals in these groups and stakeholders serving these groups to use a comprehensive public health approach to promoting behavioral health that addresses a holistic view of health by focusing on the intersection between behavioral and physical health.”
So while we continue to advocate for unfettered access to education, fair compensation, and equitable housing, there needs to be equal effort to achieve quality holistic healthcare for all. Meaningful recovery will remain elusive if the call to provide quality healthcare for all Americans is ignored. A healthy and motivated population is integral to rebuilding a committed workforce that can get America back to business. For young black and brown people across America, healthcare should be an inalienable right and not a privilege.