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Innovation will help us rebuild

If we’re creative and rigorous, we can come out of the pandemic with a stronger society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sudden and drastic loss of US jobs on a scale not witnessed since the Great Depression.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Every state, city, and town is a system of systems. Public schools. Transportation. Housing. Local commerce. Industry and manufacturing. Law enforcement. Infrastructure. Sanitation. The list goes on, and each is a critical, interdependent component of our daily lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely debilitated each of these systems, causing them to operate in unanticipated ways. Their vulnerabilities and inequities have been exacerbated and new ones revealed. The consequences are especially acute for some individuals and communities — often those who are the least privileged.

Right now, Governor Charlie Baker is laying out plans for a gradual reopening of the economy. This, then, is the time to develop strategies for supporting each of society’s systems, targeting not only recovery but also how they can be more equitable and resilient than they were. Luckily, Massachusetts is in a distinctively strong position to do so thanks to our world-class innovation and education sectors.

Boston-based institutions and experts have been prominent in the national biomedical response to the pandemic. We can play a similar role in the multifaceted recovery that comes next. We have experts in all the other areas that will need support and attention, who will be able to imagine the kinds of solutions we need tomorrow and next year. The results will support our local communities while also offering models for others around the country facing the same challenges.


What follows are suggestions for the way forward in four sectors — the labor market; primary and secondary education; housing; and mental health and social services — based on a conversation that opened the Boston Area Research Initiative’s ongoing conference on The Smart, Equitable Commonwealth. Recovery will require collaboration between researchers, policymakers, practitioners, community leaders, and corporations, and data will play a critical role. This moment can be transformational, but only if we are rigorous and creative.



Labor Market

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sudden and drastic loss of US jobs on a scale not witnessed since the Great Depression. It has exacerbated existing inequalities in the labor market while creating new disparities. COVID-19 job losses have been disproportionately borne by people of color and vulnerable populations such as youth, immigrants, and those with less education. Moreover, many “essential” workers are in front-line jobs that entail out sized health risks with little protection and pay relatively low wages.

The mix of businesses in the region will be different from before, as only some of them re-open in the short term, and there will likely be a mismatch between the employees who can safely return to work and the jobs that need to be filled. Firms will also seek to reduce health risks and cut labor costs by accelerating the adoption of automation technology, hiring fewer workers, and shifting which skills they see as immediately necessary.

How can we ensure success for all workers as the economy re-opens? I propose three things.

First, the government should provide real-time labor market information to career center counselors to advise job seekers about which positions and skills are in demand.

Second, education and training institutions should coordinate with employers to ensure that course offerings, curriculums, and degrees align with job requirements.

Third, state and local governments should ensure that certification and licensure laws do not pose unnecessary barriers for workers seeking to change occupations or work in other states.


These solutions will require expanding sector-based partnerships between employers, government, and education and training institutions in key industries, such as the existing Boston Healthcare Careers Consortium and the Greater Boston IT/Tech Consortium. Such collaboratives can rebuild regional talent pipelines, address skill gaps, and create meaningful career pathways for a range of workers in important industries — rebooting our economy while leaving no worker behind.


Primary and Secondary Education

With schools closed for the year, and possibly the fall as well, immediate questions loom about whether and how learning can be made up. Beyond this, we dare ask: Can we capitalize on this moment to improve education in America?

School closures magnified inequities. Compared to wealthier districts, school districts serving disadvantaged students started behind the line. They necessarily focused first on continuing basic resources for students, such as access to meals. In turning to instruction, disparities in access to computers and broadband Internet slowed the transition to online instruction.

While providing computers and hotspots is relatively easy, providing technological assistance has proved harder. Families with little experience with the Internet cannot help students with unreliable links or software installations. Meanwhile, students in wealthier districts, with near universal Internet access and Internet literacy, moved seamlessly to online classes. From here, inequities widened.

Unchecked, these instructional losses have the potential to stunt educational progress — permanently, for some students. To mitigate this, we need to focus intensely on real-time assessments, those that identify knowledge gaps that exist right now, rather than relying on less frequent, more burdensome tools, like standardized tests. These assessments must be followed by targeted, differentiated instruction to engage and instruct students without judgment.


We also need to ensure universal access and Internet literacy. Technological literacy should be treated as a basic skill. Access to the Internet is as foundational as pens and paper. With true universal Internet access, the power of technology can be harnessed and integrated with educators’ pedagogies.

Whether they’re bridging the instructional loss or reimagining education for the 21st century, teachers cannot do this alone. To address immediate instructional losses, we must train additional tutors who can work with individuals and small groups of students to recoup what they’ve missed in the shutdown. Government programs modeled after the World War II-era Works Progress Administration could employ recent college graduates and others affected by the labor market shrinkage.

To reimagine education, we need people in tech fields to collaborate with educators to bring instructional content online in ways that embody teachers’ learning goals; to integrate machine-learning capabilities to track students’ progress and identify areas for instruction, and understand how youth engage with technology across age levels. And, yes, we need experts to troubleshoot for teachers and students when software does not work as planned.

We can solve today’s issue of instructional loss education and reimagine American education, with a focus on targeted assessment and differentiated instruction, by mobilizing an idle workforce for the public good, and capitalizing on technology.




COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines in our housing market. Whether we were discussing our affordable housing crisis or chronic housing shortage, the coronavirus has threatened to topple an unsteady situation. With the shutdown of the economy, many cannot pay rent, which has a ripple effect through the industry.

Renters contribute to every facet of urban life by patronizing local businesses, sending children to local school districts, and working in jobs that support many of the qualities we appreciate about cities. And yet they are our the most vulnerable participants in the housing market. It is not a coincidence that the industries hit the hardest by COVID-19 are industries where workers are more likely to be renters. It is similarly not a coincidence that renters are more likely to be people of color, to spend more of their income on rent, and less likely to have emergency savings.

In response, we have implemented emergency provisions, like renter relief funds and our statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium. But these innovations also present an invitation to make our housing systems more equitable and resilient after the pandemic.

Several of our responses, including mortgage relief and rental relief funds, are grounded in an understanding that housing is an ecosystem. Providing financial assistance to households ensures that tenants are able to retain their homes and that property owners, particularly small “mom and pop” operations, are able to make mortgage payments and necessary repairs.

In this moment we should also try to create partnerships between different actors in our housing ecosystem. From facilitated mediation between tenants and landlords to Community Land Trusts and other strategies that increase resident ownership, we need solutions that will support households in the long term. Solutions that prioritize communication between parties that rely on one another are essential in a system defined by historic power imbalances.

It bears repeating that we had a housing crisis before COVID-19. The need for additional housing has not suddenly disappeared. Rather it is intensifying as we attempt to move people out of crowded living situations. Paving a path for new housing supply for different household types, including older adults and working families, will only increase in its importance over the next few months.


Mental Health and Social Services

The current crisis is exposing the cracks — or rather, craters — in our social welfare system. Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, yet far too many already struggle to meet their most basic needs. These problems have been exacerbated by COVID-19. We must immediately prioritize rebuilding our social safety net. This kind of systemic change is possible in Massachusetts. We’ve done it before and we must rise to meet the challenge again in bold ways.

Poverty is a problem that compounds itself. We know the “diseases of despair,” like substance use disorder, anxiety, and depression, can be triggered by a lack of opportunity and systemic oppression. These conditions were already on the rise, but the current situation has only amplified the risks. A recent report by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute notes that the pandemic itself and the economic impact of mitigation efforts are expected to result in direct increases in rates of mental health and substance use disorders, including deaths associated with suicide, overdose, and violence — especially domestic violence.

Prioritizing economic justice, then, not only creates opportunity and improves our economy, it eases the burdens that are liable to become pervasive. In Massachusetts, through bills currently in front of the Legislature, we have the opportunity to issue cash assistance to families living in deep poverty, enact paid sick time for those ignored by recently passed federal legislation, and provide immigrants and others with stimulus checks.

This past year, the Legislature enacted a bill lifting the draconian welfare cap on kids. That law was in place for nearly two decades and denied cash benefits to some of the state’s most vulnerable children. Since 2006, we have raised the minimum wage twice. Both increases were substantial and meaningful. These changes to state law came about when coalitions of advocates and legislators joined together and strategically set out to change the narrative about the impact of low wages and who needs assistance.

With so many people newly focused on the problems of poverty and joblessness, we can demand more than we have come to expect from our government. Investing in our friends and neighbors to help them meet their most basic needs, like food and shelter, improves both their individual and our collective well-being. Ultimately, when we lift up people who are the most vulnerable, our entire society benefits, and we beat back the diseases of despair.


Daniel T. O’Brien is the director of the Boston Area Research Initiative and an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University. Alicia Sasser Modestino is an associate professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern and the associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Rebekah Gewirtz is the executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Nancy E. Hill is a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the director of research on education at the Boston Area Research Initiative. Taylor Cain is the director of the Housing Innovation Lab in the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.