A Pandemic of Inequality
I remember sitting on the edge of a creek watching my son pick up stones with his small, chubby hands and stack them in a row. His pebbles and stones grew taller and, to his delight, began to divert the water. He piled and piled the rocks, trying to pool the water behind them deep enough to sit in. He walked across a clearing and filled his pockets with more rocks and his dam grew taller — but no matter how tall he made it, water still seeped through. He became frustrated. “It won’t stop coming, Mama.” He looked up the stream, which went up the hill and deep into the forest, looking disdainful. “The water keeps coming.”
Coronavirus is exposing a social, economic, and political crisis that many in our communities have been enduring for a long, long time. As we are reminded to keep calm and to prepare — trips to the store to stock up on food and supplies, hunker down at home with the kids — we are ignoring the fact that for nearly half of us in America, no matter what we try to do, we do not have enough rocks: The water will keep coming.
Nearly half of Americans can’t afford a $400 unexpected bill, according to a 2018 study done by the Federal Reserve, therefore securing a month of food or hoarding hand sanitizer is something we could never do. My own neighbor who works as a cashier at a grocery store expressed how difficult it was to ring up people purchasing cleaning supplies that she knew she wouldn’t be in the position to purchase until payday at the end of the month.
Couple this common paycheck to paycheck existence of the America worker with the more than 35 million Americans lacking access to healthcare across the nation, with tens of millions more not able to afford to use the coverage they do have, and we have a pandemic that preexisted any virus reaching our shores.
When half of us do not have the ability to protect themselves from a public health crisis, then none of us do. When we leave our lowest-paid workers- janitors, grocery store clerks, home health aides — vulnerable on the front lines of this crisis without affording them sick leave or paying them wages that make it possible to skip a day of work let alone see a doctor, we are exacerbating the crisis exponentially. The water will keep coming and it will come to us all.
There are 40 million poor people in America, but politicians have run their campaigns for decades fixated the issues of the middle class — a shrinking demographic since the 1970s and a status that means less and less as expenses, such as housing and health care, grow and grow. These middle-of-the-road, middle-class political platforms are presumably counting on the working class and poor being so terribly disenchanted and disenfranchised that they will never throw the vote, or perhaps even get off work in time to do so.
Beyond political expediency, the real reason that politicians on both sides of the aisle are wont to bring up poverty is because poverty is inextricable from wealth. As a nation, we prefer to leave poverty in the realm of charity and out of politics and power. To address poverty outside of alms-giving risk acknowledging that poverty does not exist without wealth, and visa versa. In other words, we have purposefully constructed dams that disallow opportunity to half of the people who live here. To broach the subject puts our own complicity on the table.
“Perhaps that’s been the story of life,” said Donald Trump said earlier this week when a reporter asked if he thought it is fair that the wealthy and connected seem to be moving to the front of the COVID-19 testing lines. His tone, it will come as no surprise, was impervious: Inequality, to those on top, is as natural as spring.
Of course, he is wrong. I have watched children’s toys, a play kitchen, a dollhouse, be piled on the curb while my neighbor was evicted, and I have watched a homeless man lose his foot to frostbite. And I know these were not inevitable.
We have chosen inequality and actively chosen to maintain it. Not only have we let the floor give way under those “on the bottom” but we have loosened the pins. For over ten years we have chosen to keep the minimum wage at levels so low that no minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the nation. We have chosen to give tax breaks to both the wealthy and to corporations while forcing austerity on the rest of us. We have chosen to bail out big banks, automakers, and, soon, airlines while telling American families that it’s our fault if we don’t make ends meet. We have chosen for the key to unlock a visit to the doctor to be insurance and the key to insurance to be a job or wealth and we have actively made sure through the policy that none of these things are guaranteed.
Because we have chosen policy after policy that ensures inequality, we have also chosen the public health crisis that threatens us all today.
What my son didn’t understand at the creek that day is that water is supposed to flow. And like water, opportunity, prosperity, access, and safety are meant to move freely and be shared by all.
Inequality is not happenchance or a casualty of markets: It is their ambition and design. If there is such a thing as a natural state of being, the situation we have created in the United States today is not it and it could be that this dam is about to break.