Inspired by father who survived Holocaust, Wash U professor aims to help north St. Louis residents

Michal Grinstein-Weiss directs the Social Policy Institute at Washington University

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Michal Grinstein-Weiss understands how trauma can have a lasting effect.

Her father, Slomo Grinstein, survived the Holocaust by spending years hiding in the woods of Poland while his family was killed at concentration camps.

He last attended school when he was 10 years old and was never able “to get a good education,” said Grinstein-Weiss, a professor at Washington University.

“He always struggled a little bit between jobs — and [the Holocaust] doesn’t leave anyone, and he was never able to fully recover from the trauma,” said Grinstein-Weiss, who grew up in Israel and moved to St. Louis in 1999 to pursue a doctorate in social work.

Now she’s the director of the Social Policy Institute at Wash U and working to research and develop policy to help black families in north St. Louis who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

“I saw him struggle, and he always talked with me about the importance of education, and I think those two forces” affected me, she said. “I kept getting more education and got my Ph.D., and at the same time, I always, my entire life have had this mission of social service.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 33 percent of those hospitalized because of the coronavirus were black, even though they only make up 13 percent of the population in the United States. In St. Louis County, black residents tested positive for the virus at a rate of 354 per 100,000, compared with 90 per 100,000 among whites, according to data from the county government.

Grinstein-Weiss, who before the pandemic had been researching health, housing and education disparities affecting residents in north St. Louis, said that with “the spread of the disease, you are seeing that inequality come to light.”

“In north St. Louis city and county, they have some of the highest number of positive cases, compared to other areas of St. Louis, and unsurprisingly and unfortunately, these ZIP codes are some of the most segregated and poor neighborhoods,” said Grinstein-Weiss.

She thinks that the number of people in those areas who have been infected by the coronavirus may actually be higher because people are afraid to get tested due to a lack insurance or means of transportation to get to a testing site.

To try and address the gaps that exist between black and white St. Louis residents, Grinstein-Weiss and others at the institute are working with Operation Food Search, a nonprofit food bank, to evaluate programs that deliver food to poor, pregnant women and food to children who received free lunch at schools before they closed.

The institute is also working with the Housing Authority of St. Louis on a program called Mobility Connection which provides families with housing vouchers to help them move from “low opportunity areas” like Jennings to “high opportunity areas” like Chesterfield, “where they can have access to better schools,” she said.

And the institute is partnering with Centene, the St. Louis-based health care corporation, on the Centene Center for Health Transformation, where they are doing “research and intervention and experiments to see how we can help provide better health to… poor families,” she said.

In addition to tackling the coronavirus by improving access to testing and providing health insurance and paid sick leave, Grinstein-Weiss said, “the day after the coronavirus, we really need to address some of the structural inequalities that are going way back and are all over: in housing from years of segregation, in education, because poor families are living in neighborhoods that don’t have as much tax revenue, so they end up at worse schools. So there is a lot of work to be done, and I really hope that that will happen now when you see how much it is needed.”