Guest Opinion | Johnson County General Assistance program enables structural racism

The structural racism and implicit bias of the program proves the urgent need for an Excluded Workers Fund.

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Sabine Martin

Demonstrators marched from the Iowa City Catholic Worker House to Mercer Park Wednesday afternoon.


Essential immigrant workers in Johnson County make our way of life possible. They grow and prepare the food we eat, manufacture the goods we own, build and clean the homes we live in, care for our children, and provide vital, front-line labor to sustain our society. In doing so throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant workers have been disproportionately risking their health and safety just to survive.

Yet, these workers have been left out of all forms of pandemic relief: stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, and child care assistance. The federal stimulus other families received did nothing to lift immigrant families up and out of the trap of poverty, food and housing insecurity, and adverse childhood experiences.

The Johnson County General Assistance program is neither an equal nor equitable solution for excluded workers. Many restrictions are in place within it. Excluding immigrant workers from federal pandemic benefits and having them rely on inaccessible and insufficient county general assistance is a moral and economic failure.

With the American Rescue Plan, Johnson County and Iowa City now have the resources and flexibility to remedy these racial inequities by creating an Excluded Workers Fund.

Since April, hundreds of excluded workers have spoken out. Their urgent cries for justice have resounded, “Escucha Mi Voz — which means hear my voice. Rather than listen to the lived experiences and needs of excluded workers, local and county political leaders opt to wait for more public hearings, ignoring the active racial inequities in infection and mortality rates, vaccine access eligibility, and financial insecurity. 

By refusing to act swiftly, local governments are now complicit in the perpetual discrimination against marginalized members of our community. According to a March 2019 Inclusive Outreach and Public Engagement workshop delivered to Iowa City, the disregard for minority group expression of urgency for prioritized allocation of financial relief is an example of institutional systemic implicit bias for racial injustice. 

This is more than a moral or economic failing. Legally, it is a potential violation of the Iowa City Human Rights Ordinance found in Title II of the City Code.

Ninoska Campos is an immigrant worker and single mother struggling financially after ICE deported her husband last year. She has testified in public hearings that she was excluded from $12,600 in stimulus checks and unemployment insurance and only received $800 from the county general assistance program.

We have heard many shocking examples about the county general assistance program:

  • One unaccompanied Guatemalan teenager did not qualify because he is a minor.
  • Jackelin was denied because the bills she pays are not in her name. 
  • Those who need general assistance for gas, diapers, transportation, or food receive vouchers capped at $35. 
  • Though food stamps are insufficient, immigrant parents whose children have Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are disqualified.
  • Unemployed workers only qualify if they apply for two jobs per week, and must not have quit or been let go for calling-in sick. 
  • US veterans, household members who are in post-secondary education, and people in Section 8 or U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development do not qualify. 

The pandemic is an active crisis, and the structural racism and implicit bias in our city’s and county’s response is widening a wealth gap in our community.

This is why the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition filed a complaint of unfair discrimination with the Iowa City Human Rights Commission. With the American Rescue Plan, we have a unique opportunity to change course for excluded workers and their families. We ask the Human Rights Commission to recognize the urgency in our call and to amplify it. 

— Dr. Kathy Lee-Son and Dr. Emily Sinnwell Iowa City Catholic Workers, Dr. Kevo Rivera, member of the Iowa City Ad-Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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