For more than seven decades, The Pew Charitable Trusts has approached difficult problems methodically: We engage in rigorous research, look for specific ways we can make a measurable difference and, when possible, engage with like-minded partners to increase our impact in creating meaningful, positive change. This issue of Trust illustrates three examples of how our process—from research and surveys to partnerships and evidence-based policy proposals—led to measurable progress against pandemic-related challenges and a better understanding of related trends.
Among its many consequences, the pandemic made more visible the racial inequities that millions of Black Americans suffer, from lack of access to quality health care to being employed in jobs that were eliminated or couldn’t be performed from home. As you’ll learn in our Trust cover story about the Pew Research Center’s study of faith among Black adults, a desire for equality informs the religious beliefs of many Black churchgoers. This in-depth survey is the first in a series of studies describing the rich diversity of Black people in the United States, and highlights Pew’s commitment to studying evolving social attitudes and movements. Among the findings: Three-quarters of all Black adults say that opposing racism is essential to their faith, and the same percentage believe that Black churches have played at least some role in helping Black people move toward equality. “We realize that really to understand Black American life broadly, one of the things you have to understand is Black American religious life,” says Besheer Mohamed, the lead author of the report.
Another consequence of COVID-19 in the United States was its impact on student debt. Millions of lost jobs meant millions of borrowers unable to repay their loans. To mitigate this financial pain, policymakers paused payment requirements and interest charges—a moratorium that is scheduled to end in January. Pew began studying the student loan landscape before COVID-19. But the pandemic gave new urgency to our work: We surveyed borrowers last summer, and two-thirds said they would have difficulty making payments if told to resume the following month. This can have a devastating impact on borrowers because, as Travis Plunkett, who leads our student loan work, notes, “There are significant consequences of not paying and falling into delinquency, such as debt collection, a hit on your credit report, and wage garnishing.” That’s why Pew is encouraging federal policymakers to contact at-risk borrowers to discuss repayment options, provide grace periods, and streamline paperwork that could make repayment easier. More about this important consumer finance issue and the personal stories of some borrowers are in this issue.
COVID-19 brought serious financial harm to many American industries. But challenges can create economic opportunities—the kind of opportunities Pew seeks to encourage. That’s why we are working with The Nature Conservancy on an effort called Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR). Aaron Kornbluth, who works on Pew’s conserving marine life in the U.S. project, explains in the story “Return of the Oysters” that when restaurants shut down during the pandemic, oyster farmers lost many of their buyers. This, in turn, led unharvested oysters to grow in size until they were no longer marketable. But SOAR found an innovative way to turn economic pain into an environmental success story. It purchased $2 million worth of the overgrown oysters and, working with nonprofit groups that restore oyster reefs in New York Harbor and elsewhere, used them to rebuild imperiled sites. The result: hundreds of jobs saved and newly created reefs that filter and cleanse water and increase biodiversity.
Success in meeting society’s challenges is never easy. But following a proven process based on research to develop realistic, achievable solutions can offer a way forward. That’s why Pew’s fact-based, nonpartisan approach to improve policy, inform the public, and invigorate civic life will continue to guide our work—and enable us to anticipate societal needs, pivot quickly when unforeseen challenges such as COVID-19 pose new risks, and continue our pursuit of the common good.