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A year of great challenge and gratitude

We end this unbelievably challenging year with great concern for our state – but also with gratitude for the tremendous resilience and tenacity of our grantees and partners serving Californians hit hard by COVID-19. That resilience and tenacity are being strained to the limit, as the scale of the pandemic’s economic fallout becomes increasingly clear.

New research from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), funded by the Irvine Foundation, underscores how COVID-19 has exacerbated and accelerated the enormous and unfair challenges facing low-wage workers, primarily people of color. PPIC’s research shows that four in 10 Californians living on low incomes (households earning less than $40,000) saw their hours or pay reduced in the past 12 months, and the same number cut back on food to save money. One-third of Black and Latino Californians, regardless of income, say someone in their household lost their job this past year (compared to 21% of Asian Americans and 24% of Whites in California).

Unsurprisingly, Californians are losing faith in the California Dream; 63% of Californians believe children will grow up worse off financially than their parents. They know that the economy is stacked against low-income workers.

Eight in 10 Californians believe it’s important for employees to organize to protect themselves, but only three in 10 employed adults have access to a union or group representing workers. And they know that racism is a root cause: 70% of Californians and 94% of Black Californians say that racial and ethnic discrimination contributes to economic inequality in this country.

These and other findings in PPIC’s first survey on economic mobility and income inequality are part of our commitment to listening to the experiences of workers and those who serve them. This fall we also supported The Institute for the Future to host virtual conversations with working Californians affected by the health and economic fallout of COVID-19. (In this video you can hear their voices as well as Irvine grantees, and the Institute will release a report on this listening in early 2021.)

Many of these voices demand that leaders plan for an economic recovery that is equitable. We agree: Our goal is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. This cannot be achieved until we eliminate the glaring inequalities in economic opportunity based on gender, geography, income, and race and ethnicity.

The glare of systemic racism is especially harsh. Anti-Black racism literally kills, as we all witnessed with the murders this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others.

That’s why the Irvine Foundation committed an additional $20 million of funding over 18 months to support efforts to end anti-Black racism and advance racial equity in economic opportunity. Last week, we made our first grants with this funding, targeting Black-led efforts to advocate for justice and to support Black-owned small business and wealth building for Black workers. These grants are a start for what will become a more comprehensive strategy and set of grantees in 2021.

In response to COVID-19 more broadly, the Irvine board also approved a grant to support the formation of new public health councils in Los Angeles County, where public health officials and worker organizations learn directly from workers about health and safety issues that can put lives at risk.

Nonprofits focused on workers’ safety and career advancement are now more critical than ever, and earlier this year we committed $22 million to bolster the immediate and long-term financial sustainability of grantees on the front lines of the crisis. That included $20 million to grantees in our Better Careers, Fair Work, and Priority Communities initiatives as part of Recession Resilience Project.

We are inspired by the dedication and innovation our grantees have shown under incredibly challenging circumstances. These grantees and other amazing nonprofits provide us all with hope that we can enter 2021 with new understanding, approaches, and collective commitments to turning the crises of this year into an opportunity for a better tomorrow – where we afford all workers dignity and equitable outcomes.