Community Development in the Time of COVID-19

Cornhusker Economics September 23, 2020
Community Development in the Time of COVID-19

By Daniela Mattos

The global pandemic has driven the whole country into an unprecedented crisis. As the months passed and the death toll climbed, the pandemic did something else: it unveiled deep inequities within the country. Those getting sick and dying were disproportionately low-income racial and ethnographic minorities, most of them essential workers. According to the latest data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus has overly affected Black people and Latinos ( Communities of color are also overrepresented among essential workers who are generally unable to work from home and more likely to come into contact with the virus stretching the racial wealth gap in the United States and making the richest wealthier while leaving many of the poorest without jobs (

Thomas Piketti (2014), showed that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the United States and many other countries for several decades and will continue to grow while the rate of capital return is higher than the rate of economic growth. Based on Piketti’s findings, researchers have shown the effects of income inequality on every aspect of quality of life including significant negative impacts on public health like the ones caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Clarke and Whiteley (2020) examined the relationship between COVID-19 and economic, social and demographic factors, finding that states with dense populations and greater income inequality are more likely to see COVID-19 cases and related deaths. Fortunately, Nebraska has a sparse population and lower income inequality when compared to other states.  Nebraska’s 2020 Gini Index, a measure of the distribution of income inequality, is 0, 442 while the United States’ is 0, 485 ( The Gini Index ranges from 0, representing perfect equality (where everyone receives an equal share), to 1, perfect inequality (where only one individual or group of people receives all the income). However, even in sparse areas where COVID-19 cases are lower like Nebraska, people of color are more likely to get and die from the virus because poverty is heavily concentrated among minorities. Table 1 shows that the poverty rate of white residents in Nebraska is dramatically lower than that of other races (and ethnicities). Among white Nebraskans, 132,819 out of 1,471,138 live below the poverty line. Approximately 77.7% of the total population of Nebraska are white.

Table 1. Nebraska Poverty Rate by Race and Ethnicity
Race Population Poverty Rate
     Poverty Rate
Black 85,003 28.6 25.2
American Indian 15,303 32.6 26.8
Asian 40,697 19.3 11.9
Pacific Islander 1,403 19.2 19.0
Other 34,466 20.8 23.8
Two or More Races 43,938 20.5 18.4
White 1,471,138 9.0 10.3
Hispanic 193,358 22.7 22.2
Source: 2017   American Commuinty Survey 5-Year Estimate.

Although Nebraska COVID-19 infection and death rates are not as high as nationwide, data from the COVID Tracking Project racial data tracker ( suggests racial/ethnic disparity1. As mentioned previously, it is not a coincidence that the races/ethnicities with more families living in poverty are the same ones that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Decades of disparities in education, food security, housing, jobs and stress levels have contributed to an excess risk of chronic disease based on race, ethnicity and income. And those same issues are exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis. Tables 2 and 3 reflect the cases and deaths by race and ethnicity in Nebraska. The numbers differ dramatically among different racial and ethnic groups.

Table 2. Nebraska Cases and Deaths by Race (September 2020)
Race Percent of
of Cases
of Deaths
Black or African American 5 *7 8
Asian 2 *5 4
Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders <1 <1 0
American Indian and Alaska Native <1 <*1 3
Two or more races 2 ^ ^
White 87 80 83
Some other race 3 ^6 3
*Racial/ethnic disparity likely
^ Data not specified by the State of Nebraska
Source: The COVID Tracking Project

Table 3. Nebraska Cases and Deaths by Ethnicity (September 2020)
Ethnicity Percent
of Population
of Cases
of Deaths
Hispanic or Latino 11 *40 *23
Non-Hispanic or Latino 89 60 77
* Racial/ethnic disparity likely
Source: The COVID Tracking Project

1 They calculate likely racial/ethnic disparity based on three criteria:

  1. Is at least 33% higher than the Census Percentage of Population.
  2. Remains elevated whether we include or exclude cases/deaths with unknown race/ethnicity.
  3. Is based on at least 30 actual cases or deaths.

But with every national crisis comes a chance to look to the future with new determination and ideas. Do we really want to go back to where we were? If there was a lesson learned from the 2008 economic recession, it was that we must ensure this recovery is more inclusive bringing everyone along with it. The goal of closing gaps in opportunities needs to start now.

Today communities are being challenged by a great deal of uncertainty and stress along with limited financial resources and external assistance. Regardless if it is health care, food security, affordable housing or the closing of local businesses, community recovery should be guided by the principles of equality. This task will depend on creativity and innovation more than ever to compensate for the lack of resources. Strong Towns, an organization that supports communities across the United States, put together a toolkit to help towns around the United States to become stronger and more financially resilient during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. These are a few suggestions from the toolkit that can benefit most places, but mainly low-income communities:

  • Waive some zoning restrictions: policies to contain COVID-19 led to mixed-use buildings even in areas deemed exclusively residential. Daily essentials (small groceries, pharmacies, etc.) should be allowed in residential areas creating opportunities for innovators to respond to the crisis.
  • Spark social entrepreneurs: use of empty commercial buildings in strategic locations (ones that fill streetscape gaps and connect places) for pop-up commercial spaces to spur the next generation of social entrepreneurs.
  • Legalize housing adaptations: mainly accessory dwelling and duplex conversion to respond to the increasing demand for affordable housing.
  • Make investments in walking and biking: giving families the opportunity to not have to own a car (or have just one car), saving money for more urgent needs.
  • Minimize restrictions on growing food: remove restrictions on gardening, greenhouses, chickens, and other small-scale food production activities.
  • Thicken civic infrastructure: use of city resources to coordinate, connect and promote the efforts of place-based organizations serving the needs of the low-income population within the community.
  • Begin shifting community power imbalances: redirect city staff whose job is related to economic development to work closely with local minorities by giving them a voice and addressing the most urgent barriers for social and economic inclusion and wellbeing.

As communities recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to rebuild better by focusing on resilience and inclusiveness and initiating systemic change.  While Nebraska may be socioeconomically more fortunate than other states in the short term, the longer-term prognosis is gloomier. Communities need to remain flexible and agile in their thinking to adjust to changing situations.



Clarke, Harold and Whiteley, Paul (2020) Economic Inequality Can Help Predict COVID-19 Deaths in the US. USApp – American Politics and Policy Blog (06 May 2020).

Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Strong Towns (2020). The Local Leader's Toolkit: A Strong Towns Response to the Pandemic (2020). Retrieved from


Daniela Mattos
Professor of Practice
Department of Agricultural Economics
Agricultural Economics Department
University of Nebraska-Lincoln