From the beginning of this pandemic, the response of our elected officials has prioritized private profits over saving lives. Kentucky Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came out in opposition to federal support for state budgets, specifically mentioning state pensions as unworthy of being bailed out. In doing so, he signaled his support for using this crisis, and budget crises in states across the country, as an opportunity to abdicate responsibility for paying millions of workers benefits they’ve worked for their whole lives.
New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, responded to McConnell’s comments by doubling down on the lie of scarcity and on divide-and-conquer politics. He tried to pit New York against McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, calling Kentucky a “taker” from the federal budget. At the same time, Cuomo is proposing to cut billions of dollars from education, health care, and other social programs in New York while refusing to consider increasing taxes on the wealthy in the state — people whose wealth depends, more clearly than ever, entirely on the very essential workers who will be most devastated by these proposed budget cuts.
We cannot fall for this cynical attempt at misdirection. Indeed, leaders from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in Kentucky and in New York have come together to respond to McConnell and Cuomo and expose their lies, saying:
As a movement of poor people, we are all too familiar with rhetoric that paints recipients of aid as a burden, while ignoring the structural injustices that create wealth and poverty. Perpetuating divisions between urban and rural areas is damaging to us all. At the center of all these issues is not the red or blue divide, but actual people and their lives. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 1.6 million Kentuckians and 8.6 million New Yorkers were poor or low-income, including the majority of children in each state. Both our state governments and the federal government have failed to respond to our demands, setting the stage for deepening poverty, suffering, and death. This is not a state against state issue, and regardless of contributions, we are being forced to exist within an economic framework that time and time again, throughout history, functions to protect wealth over life.
The truth is there is enough. Billionaires in the United States have seen their wealth increase since the pandemic set in. Trillions of dollars have been funneled to corporations, either in direct handouts or through nearly zero-cost loans. Recently closed hospitals are sitting empty, along with millions of homes and hotel rooms, and millions of pounds of food are being destroyed. The lie of scarcity is a screen for policies that undermine not only our human rights to health, housing, food, and our other basic needs, but also our democracy.
In the coming months, as state governments across the country put together their budgets for the next year, the true extent of this immoral opportunism will become even clearer. Sharp declines in usual sources of state funds, like sales and income taxes, along with increased strains on already resource-starved programs like Medicaid and unemployment insurance, will leave states in severe budget crises.
The criminal poisoning of Flint, Michigan is a dire warning about the results of these types of policies. Michigan’s emergency management law allows for the state to determine that a city is in financial distress and then push aside local elected officials and instead appoint an unaccountable, unelected, emergency financial manager with near-dictatorial power. In Flint, it was an emergency manager who decided to switch the city’s water source as a cost-saving measure, refused to take necessary safety precautions, and caused the entire city to be exposed to lead poisoning from their water supply.
Analyzing the situation, Claire McClinton, a long-time Flint community organizer and leader, said: “They could not have taken our water away without taking our democracy first.” As we witness the current assaults on democracy — including emergency manager laws, voter suppression tactics, and now the refusal to fund universal mail-in voting in the face of this pandemic — we must recognize that these measures are laying the groundwork for an attack on the lives of the poor and the rights of everyone.
By turning the public health emergency into a financial emergency, the wealthy attempt to justify circumventing democracy even further, carry out severe cuts to legal entitlements, break the promises and deny the obligations of the government and the demands of justice. We cannot be silent in the face of cruelty masquerading as necessity.
We must go deeper in organizing and uniting people around a visionary and far-reaching agenda that calls for us to reorganize society around the needs and demands of the poor. Just as we refuse to cooperate with immoral and irresponsible calls to re-open businesses, we refuse to allow politicians and big corporations to balance budgets by denying rights.
And not only can we plug funding shortfalls in existing programs, but in fact this crisis is showing us we have to go much further. Medicaid should be available to every resident in every state, and health care should no longer be available as a source of private profits but only to serve the public good. Everyone should have a right to an adequate income, whether through a safe, living wage job or through social programs. Everyone’s right to vote, and to have that vote respected, should be protected. We can provide housing, education, good food, and a healthy environment for all.
We cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by the false narratives of “returning to normal” and managing scarcity. The truth is that normal was already a crisis for the 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, and that even in this pandemic there need not be any scarcity, if we value human life over private profits. Now is the time to expose the lies, to deepen our democracy, and to truly address the profound injustices exposed in this pandemic. Si se puede!
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.