By Philip Alston, Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis
April 30, 2020
(CNN) Out of the wreckage of World War II, the United States worked with other countries to proclaim, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “freedom from fear and want” are people’s highest aspirations. Seventy-two years later, with a pandemic laying waste to lives and livelihoods, the world is again gripped by fear and want.
In the United States, the world’s wealthiest nation, the coronavirus is laying bare the dire consequences of policies that have led to widespread poverty and inequality.
We are intimately familiar with poverty in this country, having led fact-finding missions in recent months and years on behalf of the United Nations and the Poor People’s Campaign. What we have seen over the past two years — from Alaska to Alabama, from Mississippi to Massachusettes — is staggering: children wading through yards flooded by raw sewage, families forgoing medical care for fear of bankruptcy, and people working two or three jobs without benefits to pay the bills.
The country is afflicted with rampant and rising inequality, minimum wages so low that a two-bedroom rental is unaffordable in every state, an estimated 87 million adults uninsured or underinsured, record numbers of homeless students, a disgraceful racial wealth gap and a surge in “deaths of despair” among those without a college degree. Before the coronavirus, about 140 million people in America were either poor or low income, and two out of five could not cover a $400 expense without difficulty.
Now the pandemic makes the situation, already an affront to human rights, much worse. A second Great Recession hovers ominously. America’s workers are on the frontlines of the disease with almost no support from the country’s threadbare social safety net. More than 26 million have already lost jobs, food bank lines stretch literally for miles, and many will soon have no way to pay rent or keep their homes. This may be just the tip of the iceberg. But despite a surge of government spending, far too little has been done to help low-income people get by.
Tens of millions have been shut out of relief efforts like paid sick leave, student loan relief and one-time cash payments. States and local governments, which have received little federal support, are now considering cuts to crucial services like public transportation, education, legal aid and health care. Last week, Congress passed another multi-billion-dollar stimulus package without important anti-poverty relief, like expanded food stamps or rental assistance.
To be clear, the US government has taken bold action — but much of it has been aimed at protecting the wealthy. Trillions of dollars have been funneled to bail out corporate America and support financial markets. This does little to help most American families, who own little or no stock, and companies that benefited are already signposting layoffs.
One-time relief checks ($1,200 to single Americans, $2,400 to married couples) and additional unemployment benefits from the $2.2 trillion stimulus have helped some Americans survive as unemployment topped 30 million this week. But, as Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies noted in CNN Business Perspectives, “people earning over $1 million… could receive an average tax windfall of $1.6 million, according to analysis released by two congressmen.”
What’s more, some of the richest Americans saw a 10% increase in wealth in the first three weeks of this crisis, Collins wrote. It is now clear that the scarcity myth invoked to defend budget decisions for the past 40 years was a pretext to justify policymakers’ true priorities. When the rich need rescuing, the money appears.
Across the globe, other governments have paved a different path. Spain is developing a minimum basic income that is to continue after the pandemic. Many European countries are backstopping wages to ensure businesses survive and employees can eventually return to work.
With so many Americans on the precipice of poverty and insecurity, the pandemic is exposing the cruelty of US policies towards poor people. But as with historic challenges like the Great Depression and World War II, this moment is an opportunity for transformative change.
Poor and low-income people do not need platitudes and prayers that recognize how “essential” they are while ignoring their basic needs. They need accessible health care, living wages, food security, worker protections and access to clean water and affordable housing. And unless these needs are heeded, America will fail in its efforts to rebuff the coronavirus, with the poor condemned to conditions that fuel its spread.
In a country as wealthy as the United States, poverty is a political choice, and it is time for real solutions that provide lasting freedom from fear and want.
Philip Alston is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and a professor at NYU Law School. The Rev. William Barber is the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Rev. Liz Theoharis is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.