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Sarmiento, Bea Research Projects Win Support Under UW Understanding and Reducing Inequalities Initiative

Portrait of Megan Bea, a white woman smiling, with brown hair, wearing a black blazer.
Dr. Megan Doherty Bea

Fifteen projects out of 73 proposals have been awarded support under the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s new Understanding and Reducing Inequalities Initiative. Two of these include SoHE researchers as PI or co-PI. 

Dr. Megan Doherty Bea, assistant professor of consumer science and an affiliate with the UW Center for Financial Security at SoHE, will undertake a project examining the relationship between minimum wage policies and lower-income families’ access to standard, low-cost banking services rather than costly “alternative financial services” like check cashers and payday lenders.

“It is expensive to be poor – without a bank account, poor families can spend up to 10% of their income on financial transactions each year,” explains Bea. “Raising the minimum wage is not a panacea. Due to ongoing discrimination in the financial services sector, I expect to find racial and ethnic disparities in how well this social policy enhances inclusion. However, evaluating its impact will provide policymakers with a new understanding of how existing social policy tools can be leveraged alongside direct interventions to improve families’ access and use of lower-cost financial services.”

Portrait of Carolina Sarmiento, a Chicana woman, with a dark brown braid and black dress.
Dr. Carolina Sarmiento

Dr. Carolina Sarmiento, assistant professor of civil society and community studies, will help lead a participatory action research project with the Milwaukee-based community organization Voces de la Frontera, which is led by low-wage workers, immigrants, and youth, along with Dr. Armando Ibarra, of the School for Workers, and Dr. Revel Sims, of Planning and Landscape Architecture. Together, the group will document and address threats to health and safety that essential immigrant workers face during the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the home and in the workplace.

“The project really grew out of work last April by Voces de la Frontera to support workers at the JBS Packerland and American Foods meatpacking plants in Green Bay when the plants failed to protect their workers, even as people, were getting sick with COVID-19, many of them Latinx immigrants,” says Sarmiento. “Voces and the workers who were organizing and documenting these conditions won important policy changes in the plants themselves and inspired workers in other plants to begin documenting their own conditions.”

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Latinx communities, Sarmiento adds, not only in the workplace but also in the home, where Latinx families are likelier than any other racial or ethnic group to live intergenerationally in smaller spaces and so lack the ability to distance from ill family members. Further, despite their disproportionate levels of exposure and illness, they have benefited less from national response efforts than others. The project, therefore, will focus on worker-centered solutions to the symptoms of inequality at work and at home in terms of occupational health, safety, and housing quality.

“Short-term, the project will train lay researchers from communities most directly affected, create a repository of data about safety violations, offer information in support of solutions to the problems it documents, and evaluate the effects of these interventions,” explains Sarmiento. “Long-term, the project will create resources and infrastructure for grassroots action by communities who face health hazards in both their workplaces and their homes to organize together and improve those conditions. In other words, we’re building and learning from workers’ successes to support other workers in their own campaigns for labor and housing justice.”

The Understanding and Reducing Inequalities Initiative is funded by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Read more about all 15 projects.