The escalating coronavirus pandemic, still in its early days in the United States, has already upended American life. Within days, the country’s residents have begun to transition into an unprecedented phase of social lockdown: many workplaces have required or encouraged employees to work from home, and over 40 states have temporarily closed some or all schools. Across the country, public gathering spaces including theatres, arenas, bars, restaurants and retailers are also shuttered, furloughing or laying off thousands of workers.
The longer that major sectors of the economy—largely kept humming by low-waged and tipped workers—go without customers, the worse the aggregate impact of these developments will be. As more and more workers lose their income amid the coming major economic downturn, their ability to secure basic needs like food, utilities, housing and healthcare will be seriously threatened.
Those who will see their pay fall due to closures, business slumps or care duties in light of canceled classes will still face ruinous financial obligations. Precarious and poor workers will have little wiggle room as small business owners struggle to keep shops open. Healthcare access will be hampered by tighter family budgets and widespread loss of employer-sponsored insurance. This dire situation clearly demands a dramatic political response, but so far many Democrats have been reluctant to rise to the political moment.
To stave off the extreme harms promised by the pandemic, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has resisted universal measures, opting instead for means-testing in the face of unprecedented social chaos. The two-week sick leave bill she championed contained major carve-outs, comprising up to 80% of the total workforce. The bill exempts employers with 500 workers or more, and allows small employers to opt-out as well. Moreover, as Adam Johnson and Sarah Lazare point out at Jacobin, the bill contains no provisions for often precarious freelance and gig workers, leaving them more vulnerable to the dual pressures of lost income and illness.
While Pelosi’s defenders may be inclined to defend the move as the best possible result of a painful compromise, that’s not the argument she herself made: “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing,” Pelosi tweeted. Her deputy chief of staff was even more explicit: “As congress considers the next steps, the Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded UI & direct payments – but MUST be targeted.”
Their hesitation is especially troubling given that Republicans appear to be publicly coalescing around the idea of universal cash relief. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) expressed early support for the idea, proposing a $1,000 pay out to every American. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that the Trump administration planned to send out checks within two weeks, while Pelosi reportedly remained steadfast in her opposition. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), for her part, has put forward a plan calling for $500 in payments to each family—a far more paltry sum.
To be sure, this rhetorical divergence hardly suggests that Republicans are on the verge of becoming a workers’ party, especially as many of their plans include means-testing. But that they’re able to occupy even a rhetorical space to the left of a disjointed message from elected Democrats is a failure—what Kate Aronoff at the New Republic calls a “realignment from hell.” While expansions on the widely panned bill are being debated among House Democrats, it’s unclear whether these will replace, supplant or simply act as bargaining leverage over further legislation.
The coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity to make an urgent case that very few elected officials so far are making: We are facing an emergency that will lay bare every gross inequality in American life, and the only hope of mitigating the mass suffering that lies ahead is a colossal public investment in what’s necessary to ensure dignified lives.
Keeping families stable requires universality and equity, which can be corrected later through progressive taxation. Forcing people to contend with administrative quagmires in the midst of a crisis guarantees that far too many fall into the cracks. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has presented a bold $2 trillion plan including direct monthly cash payouts of $2,000 to every household, 100% payment of unemployment benefits for everyone who loses their job as a result of the crisis as well as moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, utility shutoffs and loan payments. A similar set of proposals was put forward Wednesday by House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, including billions of dollars in grants to small businesses.
These are the types of policies begin to meet the scale of the crisis—and represent the clear way forward for a party that claims to represent working people.
When asked by a reporter about his plans for his ailing presidential campaign in light of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, Sanders responded, “I’m dealing with a fucking global crisis…right now I’m trying to do my best to make sure we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die. Is that enough for you to keep busy today?”
That’s the type of urgency this crisis requires, and Sanders, Waters and other left-leaning officials are showing what real leadership looks like under these dire conditions. Democratic leaders should join in and get busy with them.
Natalie Shure is a Los Angeles-based writer and researcher whose work focuses on history, health, and politics. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Jacobin and the Los Angeles Times. She is the Head of Research for Adam Ruins Everything on TruTV.