We are living through a scary time. U.S. deaths from COVID-19 have now topped 5,700 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.
Globally, more than three 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.
Studies from the Great Recession show that the health risks of poverty become particularly acute when the economy experiences a rapid decline and joblessness rises accordingly. Just this week, we learned 6.6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week, a U.S. record. Thousands died 10 years ago when the economy suddenly crashed. There is good reason to think things could be even worse today given how widespread unemployment might become.
We need to focus on those folks now. 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.
As we commit to an effective public health strategy, we need to be 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 his or her job and still has to buy food and pay rent and utilities, not to mention the rest of his or her bills.
Similarly, we need to make furloughed workers eligible for the expanded unemployment benefits included in the rescue package. Typically unemployment is only available if you lose your job, but here we 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 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. 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 take. 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 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.
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