Throughout American history public crises have exposed issues too long ignored in our common life. World War II, in which African-Americans from the South fought for democracy abroad, exposed the need to make democracy real at home. When the federal levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the storm revealed a gross inequality that left tens of thousands stranded, with no way out. As America responds to the coronavirus crisis, we must pay attention to what it reveals: our failure to address the needs of 140 million poor and low-wealth people.
Since news of the coronavirus first broke in China, we have been told to prepare for the possibility of widespread quarantines. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised Americans to make sure they have a month’s supply of prescription medications and stock up on the food and other basic necessities we would need if we had to stay inside our homes for a couple of weeks. “Don’t panic, but be prepared” was the message.
Preparation is in fact vital to a successful response. But the reality of poverty in this country means half of us do not have the resources to pre-pay two weeks’ worth of our basic living expenses. According to an audit conducted by the Poor People’s Campaign in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, 140 million Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency. For 43% of the U.S. population, the call to be prepared is like asking a sky-diver to get ready to jump from a plane without a parachute.
Living wage for essential service
The vast majority of people working for less than a living wage in America are working in service industry jobs, many of which are now considered “essential services” as we face shelter-in-place orders. These neighbors are preparing and serving food, cleaning buildings, caring for children and also the elderly, who are most susceptible to the new coronavirus. Yet many of these workers, who make less than $40,000 a year, are among the 22 million Americans who would not receive direct cash payments under the stimulus package Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed.
We must be clear: the coronavirus has exposed a pandemic of poverty that was already widespread and accepted in this nation. But the current global health crisis makes clear that the inequality we have too long accepted puts every single American at greater risk.
Our communities are also vulnerable because more than 35 million Americans do not have access to health care — and tens of millions more cannot afford to use the coverage they have. And our healthcare systems are at risk of becoming overwhelmed if it spreads rapidly among those who already lack access to the care they need.
Because poor and low-income Americans see walking in the door of a clinic or emergency room as cost-prohibitive, we are all in danger.
Because undocumented immigrants in this country have been pushed into the shadows and cannot trust information from public officials, we are all in danger.
Because the people who keep our cities and towns’ economies running are the most vulnerable, we are all in danger.