They are not planning to help us.
Working and poor folks are alone in this one. It’s time to build power.
Our house was way up the side of a mountain and the road that led to it was rutted and potholed. I was small for eight and I could barely see out the backseat window, which was smeared from the dog’s nose. Mountain roads might be the stuff of folk songs, but the truth is they are scary: Deep ravines plummet down with only what seems like inches to spare, loose rocks gather on their edges. It seemed so clear to me that one swerve, one car coming the opposite way too fast could spell disaster, but I was never scared because I always knew my dad would have a plan.
That’s the way it was growing up. We moved nearly every year and I was always aware that things could fall apart, that curveballs would be thrown, that bumps were in the road, that my bedroom would have to be packed up, and that we may or may not get new clothes for the new school year. But I trusted with all my heart that my parents had a plan.
It’s probably not right to call the pandemic a “curveball” or a “bump”, but instead, we need a word with more gravity, more heaviness, something that indicates the truth: Lives are at stake. We know it is serious: Fifty million unemployment claims have been filed, with nearly half of those from people who were earning under $40,000 and likely have little to no savings (if they were living out of the red at all). Conservative estimates suggest that more than 20 million people in the United States are likely to be evicted between now and the end of the year, and millions of people have lost their health insurance due to job loss… and many, many more will.
People who live in neighborhoods like mine where trucks engines start at 4:30 AM to get workers to jobs by 5 and where landlords pile up mattresses, bookshelves, and Barbi dollhouses on the curb like cairns cautioning the rest of us to pay our rent on time — people who live down here know that we have two weeks of savings despite 20 years of labor and we also know exactly what week three brings.
Do others not know it is serious? The supplemental $600 per week unemployment benefit is about to run out at the end of July and it seems unlikely to be renewed — leaving people here in North Carolina trying to live off some of the most restrictive unemployment insurance in the nation, capped at just $350 per week. Eviction moratoriums are expiring, leaving families susceptible to the downward spiral of homelessness. And because we have tied health insurance to employment, we have a health crisis of monumental proportions being exacerbated with millions afraid to go to the doctor’s with symptoms because they don’t know what kind of bill that will bring.
Just like my dad knew, driving on those mountain roads, that there was a cliff and no guardrail, lawmakers are fully aware of the precarious state of our country’s average family — the difference is that they don’t care.
In a scramble at the end of March, the largest relief package in the nation’s history was signed: $2 trillion dollars including cash payments to many households and support for small businesses. But also in that bill was a $500 billion fund to bail out large corporations and a huge tax cut for wealthy business owners. As the Reverends Barber and Theoharis put it, the working class and poor could get their assistance, but not without a 25% surcharge to the rich and powerful.
This past spring, lawmakers quickly set about saving capital: The stock market has almost entirely recovered. But this has no meaning to me or to my neighbors. That’s always been the case: Folks in my neighborhood have been selling plates to pay the light bill a long time now. I’ve been hustling night jobs to pay for childcare for my day job since my son was born. My dad did everything right, all the time, staying that car within the lane, taking the corners tight for nearly fifty years, and he is pushing seventy with no solid plan of being able to retire. It’s almost as if this free market wasn’t made for him.
There is no plan for us. The closest thing to a plan has been the stay-at-home orders: A plan that was undoubtedly helpful to curb the virus but left out and indeed sacrificed poor and working-class people who overwhelmingly make up the ranks of “essential workers.” During this pandemic, those of us “down here” have been consistently left with false choices: Do I send my child to school to potentially get sick or get others sick or do I keep him home and potentially, as a single mother and sole caregiver, lose my job?
I watched the ReOpen protests in my state with some sympathy: Folks feel desperate and know that they are likely to lose everything. But how do we not stop and ask: Why must my livelihood jeopardize others’ health? Why do we have to choose which people are expendable? Why does this feel so zero-sum? How did we create a big nation with such small horizons? How did we get here?
The history of the United States is, if nothing else, an illusion of exceptionalism truncated by the failings of imagination and the traps of division. Such a limited spectrum of ideas can only be maintained by dividing people: Using dog-whistle politics to blame Black folk, immigrants, hillbillies, or someone across town for access to a tiny slice of pie. But quick actions to bail out big business and shield shareholders and creditors should lead us to wonder: Where is this cupboard that seems to contain not just more slices, but so many more pies?
While the pandemic was not a choice, the response or lack of response is absolutely a choice. Furthermore, it is a choice in keeping with years of destructive, but purposeful, policy. Not having a plan is not an accident or a “failure to act” by the Federal government because it is blundering and chaotic. It is in keeping with the neoliberal consensus that government is a business and profits reign supreme. Those of us who will lose our jobs, lose our homes, lose our healthcare — even those of us who will die — are collateral damage to a business government that saves money by firing its pandemic team.
COVID19 has exposed the deep, purposeful injustices in our country and economy. While by design these failures disproportionately impact Black, Brown, Latinx, queer, immigrant, and other marginalized communities, it should be clear that our government is fine with all of us going down.
That’s why we need a plan for us. We need to build power across race and create demands: Long term eviction protections, long term unemployment, a real jobs program as a part of a Green New Deal. If we built power, we could protect parents’ jobs while they stay home with their children and we could fully fund the public education system for this moment and beyond… providing for our children as they have always needed. We could rethink government and who it serves, and start to build a real democracy.
My parents always had a plan because they loved us. Our government can not love us until our government is us. THAT should be our plan.