These are tough times. Over 143,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. As the virus spreads and lockdowns continue, rates of anxiety and drug overdose are skyrocketing along with cases of domestic violence. Still, the worst may be yet to come.
"It's such a terrifying moment," says Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker and author from Georgia who's written about democracy and the challenges of this pandemic. "The bit of security people had over the last few months from unemployment insurance and moratoriums on evictions and mortgage payments are about to come off and I think we're going to enter an incredibly scary place economically."
Grocery stores are experiencing major hoarding of some supplies due to the Coronavirus. As soon as items get stocked they are bought off the shelf with delivery trucks completely off schedule. Photo by Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.
In March, Congress allocated trillions of dollars to emergency response efforts, including an expansion of unemployment benefits, increasing food assistance through the WIC program, and launching a bailout for businesses, which was largely sucked up by big corporations. States and cities developed their own piecemeal plans, with some ordering a temporary halt to evictions, among other measures. But now that unemployment checks are running out and rent payments are due, there's a question of what comes next. Action or austerity? Will America see the recovery through?
We know it can. "America's response to [the] coronavirus pandemic has revealed a simple truth," wrote Taylor in an essay for Politico. "So many policies that our elected officials have long told us were impossible and impractical were eminently possible and practical all along… evictions were avoidable; the homeless could've been housed and sheltered in government buildings; water and electricity didn't need to be turned off… paid sick leave could've been a right… and debtors could've been granted relief."
"This is an unprecedented opportunity to not just hit the pause button and temporarily ease the pain, but to permanently change the rules so that untold millions of people aren't so vulnerable to begin with," wrote Taylor.
America's essential workforce turned out to be Amazon delivery drivers, nurses, first responders, grocery store clerks, and gas station cashiers. They deserve a living wage and paid family and medical leave and the next federal aid package is an opportunity to get that done.
Millions of Americans are out of work and many of those jobs aren't coming back. That's why an employer-based health insurance model is outdated for an age of technological disruptions and global pandemics and why it maybe be time for universal healthcare, or a public option, or at least for 13 remaining states to finally expand Medicaid, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Texas.
"We have to do everything we can to get this pandemic under control and keep people afloat while we do it," said Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, who's been writing about the COVID-19 agenda. "We need an all hands-on deck response from our public systems and public structures. That means a robust social insurance system that supports our unemployed workers" and a continuation of the loans and grants keeping businesses open.
Because this is a break the glass moment, other policies need trying. Ones long overdue.
A stronger safety net is a good start. But entire sectors of the workforce have been rendered non viable for who knows how long. So, there's good reason for a modern Civilian Conservation Corps and some version of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the House of Representatives this month. Those ideas would put the unemployed to work building new schools, hospitals, water treatment centers, mass-transit systems, and a modern electric grid powered by clean energy.
That's where the market is headed anyway. Earlier this month, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Notable because it's a victory for Black and brown communities in eastern North Carolina, but also for what it signifies about America's energy future. That's a reason to be hopeful about life after the coronavirus.
Because this is a break the glass moment, other policies need trying. Ones long overdue. Like ending wealth-based pretrial incarceration and reinvesting police funding into social services. Funding apprenticeships since campuses aren't reopening. Forgiving billions of dollars of student loan debt to give millennials the chance to finally buy that house. "We have the ideas," said Taylor, in an interview. "We know what we need to do. The thing I think we've seen in the last few months is that the money's there."
Policymakers in Washington, D.C. and at the state level should think ahead. COVID-19 will change America in unprecedented ways. The crisis has mitigated some long standing problems in unexpected ways—take, for example, the reduction in carbon emissions as more people work and attend school from home. But it's also created new ones for low-income families who lack the resources to hop on Zoom. That's why access to high-speed broadband internet is among the most important issues in the country. "It's as essential as water, sewer and electricity to have internet access," says Schofield who encourages government officials to act now to close the digital divide.
What happened to North Carolina in the last decade is a cautionary tale… "It was an austerity regime."
There's also going to be an onshoring of more of America's supply chain in the aftermath of COVID-19. That's in preparation for the next disaster (whether it's another pandemic or from climate change) and that'll create new manufacturing jobs here in the United States. That's good news for communities that have been left behind by deindustrialization.
Above all, it's important to get this moment right. The Great Recession didn't lead to a great recovery. There was no major jobs act. Not enough aid for the millions of people displaced by automation and trade. That contributed to the rise of populism in both political parties: Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders on the left and the Tea Party and Donald Trump on the right. A failure now will lead to an angrier and bitter America. "We can't stop halfway through," says Schofield, about the need to keep the recovery going, whether it takes months or years. "We have to see it through."
What happened to North Carolina in the last decade is a cautionary tale. The state was hit as hard as any in the country by the Great Recession. The economy—built around agriculture, furniture manufacturing and textiles—was already losing jobs and it took way too long to recover.
A new legislature took over in 2010, the first Republican majority since Reconstruction. They addressed budget shortfalls by cutting unemployment insurance so drastically that the state is now considered the worst place in America to be unemployed. There were cuts to education, legal aid, and other public goods to the point where mass demonstrations rocked the capital, and hundreds of people were arrested for civil disobedience as part of the Moral Monday movement.
"It was an austerity regime," says Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who just released a book about that period called Indecent Assembly. "They became the first state in American history to end the Earned Income Tax Credit. They actually raised the taxes of low-income folks."
According to a 2016 report by the North Carolina Justice Center, a third of workers in North Carolina are paid poverty wages. The second worst ranking in the country.
"What seems to be happening now is solidarity."
"North Carolina's post-recession shift from middle-wage to low-wage occupations is not representative of how most states have fared during the recovery," wrote the reports author, Brian Kennedy. "Since 2009, North Carolina has seen a 21 percent increase in workers who earn poverty wages… but the surge of the working poor in the state is not the result of unavoidable labor market forces."
It's a matter of priorities. "We're already behind the eight-ball"—in responding to the pandemic—"because we ruined our unemployment insurance system, didn't provide healthcare to people, cut taxes on the rich, and underfunded our public schools," says Schofield.
But North Carolina and the rest of the country can look at that history in deciding how to respond now. "It's important to remember this is the wealthiest nation in human history," says Nichol. "We need to change our calculation and focus like a laser on those in the bottom third. And if we did that there would be a wholesale change in our approach to government."
Activist Kerwin Pittman co-leading the march downtown Raleigh. Saturday, May 30, 2020. Photo by Jade Wilson.
If the pandemic has created a window of possibility for bold reforms, then the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown it wide open. The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Black and brown Americans forced the nation to confront racial discrimination buried deep in our national fabric.
The past two months have seen protests in every major American city. Even rural areas too. In response, there've been reflexive changes. Local governments are taking down Confederate statues and corporations are making Juneteenth a paid holiday. That's symbolic. Real justice requires more. But something about this moment feels different. Maybe because there's no escape. No malls to shop at. No sports on TV. Nowhere to go but to confront America's past. And to dream of another world.
"The pandemic's slowing people down," says Taylor. "They're home. So they're reflecting. You don't know what is going to come out of this overwhelming sense of economic insecurity. But what seems to be happening now is solidarity." And if that holds up, maybe we'll be alright.