The New Yorker - March 30, 2020
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 that’s 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. ...
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