If there is any blessing in the medical and financial crises brought about by COVID-19, it is the light they've shone on our tragic economic inequality. And the United States' bold reckoning with race has broadened the meaning of that inequality and heightened the urgency to confront it.
Low-income and Black, Latinx and Native Americans are more likely than wealthy whites to contract coronavirus, more likely to die from it and more likely to lose a job due to the recession. Meanwhile, U.S. billionaires — overwhelmingly white and male — have seen their fortunes swell by more than $700 billion during the first four months of the pandemic.
Much discussion, introspection and, for communities of faith, prayer, are needed to plumb the depths of the moral failing that led to this deadly inequality. But there are clear, practical, public actions we can take right now to alleviate suffering and build a community of equal opportunity.
First, the government should stop giving billionaires and other rich people even more money. That may sound obvious, given the needs of the sick and poor in a nationwide pandemic. But the biggest coronavirus relief package so far, March's CARES Act, gave three times as much ($135 billion) in one tax break to millionaires than it spent on safety net programs ($42 billion).
Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation says the average recipient of this "Millionaires Giveaway" will enjoy a $1.6 million tax cut this year alone. Compare that with the $1,200 checks given to most Americans.
Congress and the president should enact a massive new COVID-19 aid package, including substantial federal support for collapsing state and city services.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act passed by the House of Representatives in May allocated $875 million to overwhelmed state and local governments. It would also extend and improve the unemployment benefits that are keeping millions of households afloat, and offer another, more generously distributed round of $1,200 coronavirus payments.
The HEROES Act also repeals the Millionaires Giveaway, thus raising nearly $250 billion.
The relief package Senate Republicans finally unveiled in late July fails to meet the moment. It contains no general aid to local governments, drastically cuts unemployment benefits, leaves the Millionaires Giveaway in place and does little to narrow racial income gaps.
Though still embroiled in our multiple emergencies, we must consider how best to employ the relative calm that will eventually return. The current crises spotlight our nation's economic and racial injustice, but they did not create it.
For the past 40 years, American tax and spending policy has widened divides between rich and poor, Black and white, private gain and public pain. By repeatedly cutting taxes on the rich and corporations, and then attempting to cover the lost revenue through cuts to services that support working families, the federal government has abrogated its most basic duties to the people.
Such coldhearted and shortsighted policies fail to promote the general welfare, fail to establish justice and fail to create a more perfect union.
We can do better — and in these perilous times, we must. We can end special tax breaks and set tax rates so that the richest people and most profitable corporations pay their fair share. With the significant revenue raised, we can build a fairer society and stronger economy, so that America works for everyone, not just the mostly white families on top.
In short, we can do more than survive our tribulations — we can emerge better from them.
Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social-justice advocacy organization. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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