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The debate over the role of government in addressing income inequality, housing insecurity, debt accumulation, and health care continues, now against the grim backdrop of the raging coronavirus. It is difficult to articulate the speed with which the U.S. and, indeed, the world, has descended into an existential crisis. We are experiencing an unprecedented public-health event whose diminution and potential resolution rests with a series of prescriptions, including settlement-in-place orders, that will annihilate the economy. The deadly spread of COVID-19 demands enclosure as a way to starve the searching virus of bodies to inhabit. The consequences of doing so removes workers from work and consumers from consumption; no economy can operate under these conditions.
American life has been suddenly and dramatically upended, and, when things are turned upside down, the bottom is brought to the surface and exposed to the light. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath ravaged the Gulf Coast, it, too, provided a deeper look into the darkness of U.S. inequality. As the actor Danny Glover said then, “When the hurricane struck the Gulf and the floodwaters rose and tore through New Orleans, plunging its remaining population into a carnival of misery, it did not turn the region into a Third World country, as it has been disparagingly implied in the media; it revealed one. It revealed the disaster within the disaster; gruelling poverty rose to the surface like a bruise to our skin.”
For years, the United States has gotten away with persistently chipping away at its weak welfare state by hiding or demonizing the populations most dependent on it. The poor are relegated as socially dysfunctional and inept, unable to cash in on the riches of American society. There are more than forty million poor people in the U.S., but they almost never merit a mention. While black poverty is presented as exemplary, white poverty is obscured, and Latinos and other brown people’s experiences are ignored. As many as four in five Americans say they live paycheck to paycheck. Forty per cent of Americans say that they cannot cover an unexpected four-hundred-dollar emergency expense.
This is a virus that will thrive in the intimacy of American poverty. For years now, even in the midst of the economic recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, rising rents and stagnant salaries and wages have forced millions of families to improvise housing; nearly four million households live in overcrowded homes. This is the cruel irony of the San Francisco Bay Area’s shelter-in-place mandate: the region is at the epicenter of the U.S. housing crisis, as exemplified by its growing unsheltered homeless population. How do you practice social isolation without privacy or personal space? There are the crowded public offices that poor people congregate in to navigate access to services and income. There are the emergency rooms that function as primary health-care providers—not to mention the county jails and state prisons.
Economic inequality is exacerbated by racial injustice, both held in place by a threadbare social-safety net. Black and brown populations are particularly vulnerable to infection because poverty is a fount of underlying conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, pulmonary disease, and heart disease, that make it more likely that the virus will be deadly. They are also more vulnerable because greater rates of poverty and under-employment have hindered access to health care. In Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the U.S., where black unemployment is four times the rate of white unemployment, the majority of diagnosed coronavirus cases are middle-aged black men. And as anyone who has ever had to wonder how they will make their rent payment knows, the stress of economic uncertainty is corrosive, eating into the capability of the immune system.
But the danger of contracting the coronavirus will hardly be the problem of the poor and working class alone. Those who, because of poverty and insecurity, are most vulnerable to infection also have disproportionate contact with the broader public, through their low-wage retail and service work. Consider the plight of the home health-care worker. Millions of such workers attend to a largely elderly and homebound population for meagre hourly wages and often without health insurance. In 2018, home health-care workers, eighty-seven per cent of whom are women and sixty per cent of whom are black or Latino, made an average of about eleven dollars and fifty cents an hour. These workers are the sinews of our society: they must work to insure that our society continues to function, even as that work poses potential threats to their clients and the general public. Their insecurity, combined with the failure of meaningful action by the federal government, will make the suppression of the virus nearly impossible.
Thus far, the Trump Administration has predictably bungled the response to the coronavirus. But the Democratic Party’s response has been hampered by its shared hostility to unleashing the power of the state, through the advance of vast universal programs, to attend to an unprecedented, devolving catastrophe. About half of American workers receive health insurance through their employer. As job losses mount, millions of workers will lose their insurance while the public-health crisis surges. In the last Democratic debate, former Vice-President Joe Biden insisted that the U.S. doesn’t need single-payer health care because the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy proved that it doesn’t work. Strangely, he simultaneously insisted that all testing and treatment of the virus should be free because we are in crisis. This insistence that health care should only be free in an emergency reveals a profound ignorance about the ways that preventive medicine can mitigate the harshest effects of an acute infection. By mid-February, a Chinese government study of that country’s coronavirus-related deaths found that those with preëxisting conditions accounted for at least a third of all COVID-19 fatalities.
Dismissing the necessity of universal health care also shows an obliviousness to the power of medical expenses to alter the course of one’s life. Two-thirds of Americans who file for bankruptcy say that medical debt or losing work while they were sick contributed to their need to do so. The costs of medical treatment become a reason for postponing visits to the doctor. A 2018 poll found that forty-four per cent of Americans delayed seeing a doctor due to its cost. Already, half of Americans polled have said that they worry about the costs of the testing and treatment of COVID-19. In a situation like the one we are in, it becomes easy to see the ways that encumbered access to health care exacerbates a public-health breakdown. N.B.A. players, celebrities, and the wealthy have access to the coronavirus test, but attending nurses and frontline health-care workers, community health centers, and public hospitals do not. Health-care inequalities are problems that have been left unattended, creating so many small, imperceptible fractures that, in the midst of a full-scale crisis, the structure is collapsing, shattering under its own weight.
The case has never been clearer for a transition to Medicare for All, but its achievement clashes with the Democratic Party’s decades-long hostility to funding the social-welfare state. At the heart of this resistance is the pernicious glorification of “personal responsibility,” through which success or failure in life is seen as an expression of personal fortitude or personal laxity. The American Dream, we are told, is anchored in the promise of unfettered social mobility, a destiny driven by self-determination and perseverance. This ingrained thinking evades the fact that it was the New Deal, in the nineteen-thirties, and the G.I. Bill, in the nineteen-forties, that, through a combination of federal work programs, subsidies, and government-backed guarantees, created a middle-class life style for millions of white Americans. In the nineteen-sixties, as a result of prolonged black protest, Lyndon Johnson authored the War on Poverty and other Great Society programs, which were intended to lessen the impact of decades of racial discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. By 1969, with Richard Nixon at the helm, during an economic downturn that ended what was then the longest economic expansion in American history, the conservatives attacked the notion of the “social contract” embedded in all of these programs, claiming that they rewarded laziness and were evidence of special rights for some. When Nixon ran for reëlection, in 1972, he claimed that his campaign pitted the “work ethic” against the “welfare ethic.”
This was an attack not only on public aid and subsidized housing but also on the people using those programs. Republicans successfully tapped into the racial resentments of white suburbanites, who decried “their” tax dollars going to unruly, rioting African-Americans. They resented “forced integration,” “forced busing,” and “the bureaucrats,” as Nixon derisively called the previous Democratic Administrations. It is important to understand that this was not demonization for its own sake or because of some irrational antipathy toward African-Americans. This was about keeping the corporate tax rate low and reëstablishing the profitability of capital in the aftermath of another, longer economic downturn. It is hard for businesses and their political representatives to counsel ordinary workers to do more with less. It was easier to blame welfare queens, welfare cheats, and an oblique, yet black, underclass for the end of these “wasteful” programs. In 1973, Nixon unceremoniously declared an end to the “urban crisis”—the catalyst for much of Johnson’s welfare state. This created the pretext for his gutting of the Office of Economic Opportunity, the office that managed the web of anti-poverty programs created by the War on Poverty.
The eventual defection of ordinary white voters from the Democratic Party to the Republicans meant that the Democrats soon aped the right’s strategy of downplaying the structural roots of inequality while portraying black communities as ultimately responsible for their own hardships. By the end of the nineteen-eighties, the Democratic Party was championing law-and-order politics and harsh, racist attacks on welfare entitlements. In a 1988 column for the Post of Newark, Delaware, titled “Welfare System About to Change,” the then Senator Biden wrote, “We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down—that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.” This statement was hardly extraordinary; it reflected widespread efforts to transform public perceptions of the Democratic Party. By the early nineties, President Bill Clinton was promising to “end welfare as we know it,” which he succeeded in doing by the end of the decade.
This is the historical backdrop to the hypocrisy of U.S. government-spending priorities today. Bipartisan denunciations of big government do not apply to the obscene amounts spent on the military or the maintenance of the nation’s criminal-justice system. The U.S., across all levels of government, spends more than eighty billion dollars annually to operate jails and prisons and to maintain probation and parole. The budget for the U.S. armed forces topped out at a stunning seven hundred and thirty-eight billion dollars for this year alone—more than the next seven largest military budgets in the world. Meanwhile, social-welfare programs—from food stamps to Medicaid, to subsidized and assisted housing, to public schools—are forced to provide on the thinnest margin, triaging crises, rather than actually pulling people out of poverty.
When Bernie Sanders’s critics mocked his platform as just a bunch of “free stuff,” they were drawing on the past forty years of bipartisan consensus about social-welfare benefits and entitlements. They have argued, instead, that competition organized through the market insures more choices and better quality. In fact, the surreality of market logic was on clear display when, on March 13th, Donald Trump held a press conference to discuss the COVID-19 crisis with executives from Walgreens, Target, Walmart, and CVS, and a host of laboratory, research, and medical-device corporations. There were no social-service providers or educators there to discuss the immediate, overwhelming needs of the public.
The crisis is laying bare the brutality of an economy organized around production for the sake of profit and not human need. The logic that the free market knows best can be seen in the prioritization of affordability in health care as millions careen toward economic ruin. It is seen in the ways that states have been thrown into frantic competition with one another for personal protective equipment and ventilators—the equipment goes to whichever state can pay the most. It can be seen in the still criminally slow and inefficient and inconsistent testing for the virus. It is found in the multi-billion-dollar bailout of the airline industry, alongside nickel-and-dime means tests to determine which people might be eligible to receive ridiculously inadequate public assistance.
The argument for resuming a viable social-welfare state is about not only attending to the immediate needs of tens of millions of people but also reëstablishing social connectivity, collective responsibility, and a sense of common purpose, if not common wealth. In an unrelenting and unemotional way, COVID-19 is demonstrating the vastness of our human connection and mutuality. Our collectivity must be borne out in public policies that repair the friable welfare infrastructure that threatens to collapse beneath our social weight. A society that allows hundreds of thousands of home health-care workers to labor without health insurance, that keeps school buildings open so that black and brown children can eat and be sheltered, that allows millionaires to stow their wealth in empty apartments while homeless families navigate the streets, that threatens eviction and loan defaults while hundreds of millions are mandated to stay inside to suppress the virus, is bewildering in its incoherence and inhumanity.
Naomi Klein has written about how the political class has used social catastrophes to create policies that allow for private plunder. She calls it “disaster capitalism,” or the “shock doctrine.” But she has also written that, in each of these moments, there are also opportunities for ordinary people to transform their conditions in ways that benefit humanity. The class-driven hierarchy of our society will encourage the spread of this virus unless dramatic and previously unthinkable solutions are immediately put on the table. As Sanders has counselled, we must think in unprecedented ways. This includes universal health care, an indefinite moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the cancellation of student-loan debt, a universal basic income, and the reversal of all cuts to food stamps. These are the basic measures that can staunch the immediate crisis of deprivation—of millions of layoffs and millions more to come.
The Sanders campaign was an entry point to this discussion. It has shown public appetite, even desire, for vast spending and new programs. These desires did not translate into votes because they seemed like a risky endeavor when the consequence was four more years of Trump. But the mushrooming crisis of COVID-19 is changing the calculus. As federal officials announce new trillion-dollar aid packages daily, we can never go back to banal discussions of “How will we pay for it?” How can we not? Now is a moment to remake our society anew.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.” She is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.