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. Read more