We are living through a scary time. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 have now topped 9,500 and the nation has more known cases than any other country.
And not only is the pandemic a major public health problem, it is exacerbating a second such crisis in this country: poverty.
Like the coronavirus, poverty is a significant public health problem. Globally, more than
3 million children under age 5 die annually from malnutrition. In the United States, the richest of us lives 15 years longer than the poorest. There are countless comparable statistics and they all tell the same story: being poor is bad for your health.
The reality is that most of us are just hanging on. As many as 80% of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck. At least 40% of Americans report that they do not have $400 in savings to cover an emergency. As a result, when the economy declines suddenly, the bottom drops out for many. This is when the health risks of poverty become particularly acute and can spread rapidly.
Evidence from the Great Recession makes this point most poignantly: Studies show that during that period, suicide and domestic violence rates rose sharply. As bad as things were then, the current moment is unprecedented. Nearly 10 million new unemployment claims were filed in the last week; many times more claims than have ever been filed in any similar time period in U.S. history. Unfortunately, the public health effects of this are already becoming apparent. As just one example, concerns about domestic violence are growing; in Greensboro there has already been a 30% jump in calls to law enforcement.
Thousands died 10 years ago when the economy suddenly crashed. There is good reason to think things could be even worse today given how severe the economic problems might become.
If we are going to shut down the country to protect against the virus, then we have a moral obligation to also protect all those who will be hurt by these actions. The federal government’s $2 trillion rescue package is a good start, but we need to think bigger.
The most fundamental step required right now is to develop and implement a true national strategy that will slow the spread of the virus and more quickly begin the return to normal. Dr. David Katz and others have proposed a set of targeted interventions that seem wise, but whether this strategy or another, the patchwork and haphazard approach we using now will only cost lives and deepen the economic harm.
As we commit to an effective public health strategy, we need to prepared to invest for the duration of this crisis in the millions of people who will suffer deeply from the interventions being taken to halt the virus. The first of these required investments is the passage of a temporary universal basic income to provide some baseline of economic security for all Americans. One $1,200 check will not do much for a person who lost her job and still has to buy food and pay rent and utilities, not to mention the rest of her bills.
Similarly, we need additional federal action to ensure that all furloughed workers are eligible for the expanded unemployment benefits included in the rescue package. Typically unemployment is only available if you lose your job and you are actively looking for new employment, but here we should need as many incentives as possible to keep people employed, even if they are not being paid. This will best position the labor market for a quick recovery once the pandemic has ended.
Next, if people will be required to stay home, we must ensure that renters have housing security. Nearly, 65% of all renters are low-income and they face real risks. Some states have enacted moratoriums on evictions, but that is not enough: Low-income tenants need a 90-day “rent holiday.” Their landlords can be held harmless though the many small business loan and grant programs that are being ramped up.
Finally, we should get creative and start putting people to work right now to both meet immediate needs and solve long-term problems. We need a hiring surge of governmental workers to meet the dramatically increased demand for social services so that people can get the help they need. With funding and coordination, jobless restaurant workers can help prevent a hunger crisis. Thinking even bigger, now might be the time to rapidly scale a major public works project to begin to address the country’s infrastructure crisis and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. There are opportunities in every crisis; we need to find them here.
Clearly, we need to address the serious danger posed by the coronavirus, but in doing so we cannot be blind to the consequences of the actions we are taking. Making good public policy, even in times of national emergency, requires clarity about the choices being made, the impacts they will have, and the trade-offs that result.
This crisis has revealed the extent of the consequences of the fight against the coronavirus and the disproportionate impact they will have on economically vulnerable Americans, including the millions who are suddenly and unexpectedly jobless. It is past time to take action to address these harms or we may find that the health crisis we face is even worse than the one wrought by the virus.
Andrew Foster is a clinical professor of law at Duke University School of Law, where he serves as the director of its Clinical Program and the director of its Community Enterprise Clinic.