COVID-19: Magnifying American Despair and Disparities
By: Megan Downing is a barber by trade and a recreational academic in her free time
with opinions, A LOT of opinions.
COVID-19: Magnifying American Despair and Disparities
than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. That is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores.” – unknown
A monumental world event, such as a pandemic, is not something to be
politicized in the here and now. It is, however, something that should invariably shape
the future of the American political landscape in its aftermath. Regardless of political
leanings, one can clearly see, in real time, the socio-economic disparities that are
prevalent throughout America. From inadequate healthcare to stagnant wages, the
Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the failings of an American way of life. Covid-19
didn’t break the wheel; it simply cast a brilliant spotlight on all the cracks and rubble, so
bright in fact, that it can no longer be ignored. As a society, we must acknowledge the
failings of the system and how they affect our most vulnerable, as well as work together
regardless of political standing to ensure a brighter, more stable future. The
ramifications of the Covid-19 Pandemic will be felt for generations. It is up to the people
to make sure that those feelings are ones of positivity, compassion, and promise rather
than bitterness of a doubling-down on previously flawed and outdated policies.
One of the most obvious ways in which Covid-19 has shown that American
government has failed its people is with access to Healthcare. Prior to Covid-19, roughly
8.5% of the United States’ population went without some form of health insurance,
according to the U.S. Census Bureau in late September of 2019. Those who have
insurance now face the possibility of losing coverage as government shutdowns,
reasonably placed for safety, stop the workforce of America from collecting a paycheck
and in turn, health benefits. Though laws demand that companies over fifty employees
must provide healthcare options, there is no protection of those benefits once they are
no longer working. Cobra, one of the only ways to extend insurance coverage beyond
termination, is ostensibly one of the most expensive ways to maintain coverage. The
Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the average annual premium for employer
family coverage was more than $20,000 in 2019. Without employer contributions, an out
of work individual would be responsible for 100% of premiums, about $1,700.00 a
month. As an individual, the premium was listed at roughly $7,000 as of 2017, which still
equates to just under $600 a month.
Asking oneself, how affordable is that kind of price when faced with a lay-
off? We can conclusively admit that it is very much NOT affordable for the vast majority
of our workforce. As a developed country, there is no good reason as to why people
must choose between a paycheck and their safety.
The United States is one of the few first world countries that has not implemented
universal healthcare coverage, a broad concept that entails some form of government
action aiming to extend, with minimum standards, healthcare as widely as possible
throughout its borders. Though even with the growing number of unemployed, roughly
22 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March 2020, there are plenty
of naysayers regarding comprehensive changes to healthcare policy, all in the name of
freedom from communism and socialism. Communism and socialism are two buzz
words likely to be screamed in response to pleas from the masses for better care; this is
likely due to the recent historical context of the words often associated with Stalin,
Hitler, and even more current, Kim Jung Un of North Korea. In reality, people are asking
for social democracy, not to be confused with (though often overlapping) democratic
socialism, as a reasonable fix to many issues faced.
Social Democracy is defined as a political movement advocating a gradual and
peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by democratic means. To further
expand, it is a political, social, and economic philosophy that supports economic and
social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal
democratic polity and capitalist-oriented, mixed economy. What does that entail?
Processes used to accomplish social democracy often come in the form of commitment
aimed towards creating conditions for representative and participatory democracy,
income redistribution, and regulation of the economy in general interest and social
welfare provisions. This in turn aims to create the ability for capitalism to lead to more
egalitarian, democratic, and solidaristic outcomes as policies pushed by the people
focus on curbing inequality, oppression, and the hope to eradicate poverty. Social
democracy also supports and aims for universally accessible public services; care for
veterans, the elderly, childcare, education, healthcare, and workers’ compensation. On
the surface, people see generally one of two things, both which are true, when hearing
social democracy; A system for the greater good OR higher taxes. Which a person says
first and in what tone can often lead one to a safe assumption in how well a
conversation on the topic will go.
Depending on which countries with social democracy are observed, higher taxes
is somewhat of a misnomer; between Federal, State, Local, and Sales tax, Americans
end up paying higher taxes in total compared to many of their European counterparts
and for far fewer public services. Americans have been persuaded over generations to
believe that they are freer in the abstract than those in Sweden or the Netherlands, for
example, because Americans possess far less physically. Not everyone can afford a
reliable car but freedom of speech and guns! What is freedom if not the ability to live
one’s life without imprisonment or enslavement, whether that be the power to speak
freely or to afford basic needs like healthcare, housing, and food without going
bankrupt? People want to ignore the fact that they are enslaved. Make no mistake,
American’s are slave to the dollar; if decent wages are not being made, one cannot
afford to live.
It is of interest to note that, anecdotally, the person who responds to the
conversation on social democracy with, “But I would have to pay higher taxes” will also
often follow with, “why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare or food? I work hard
for what I have and they should get a better job so they can afford life too”. This is
simply a product of the culture that the United States has been building for decades. It’s
not necessarily that people aren’t compassionate, it’s that they’ve been accepting less
for so long that they cannot begin to imagine helping others without seeing a direct,
concrete benefit to themselves. Though redirecting the taxes they are already paying
would serve all people without being a detriment to them, the mindset of capitalism is
one of, “if it doesn’t benefit me, why should I do it?” rather than, “It doesn’t hurt me to do
it, so why should I not?”.
With social distancing beginning to curb the spread of the virus and projections
being updated to show a more manageable number of cases, the government will begin
to gaslight the nation into believing that the healthcare systems in place were fine,
hospitals were given plenty of federal aid for supplies, response time was appropriate,
and the average person didn’t suffer with worry over healthcare coverage. As a nation,
this is an enormous opportunity to push government representatives to make drastic
changes to ensure that in times of crisis, no American citizen will have to put making a
dollar or fear over lost healthcare coverage, over their immediate health and well-being.
Unfortunately and almost comically, there will still be many who shun the idea of
universal healthcare because they’ve been ground down into believing what they earn
as an individual, what brand of clothes they wear, or what car they drive, is the only
thing that determines their worth.
When discussing worth on a national level, a huge point of contention lies in
minimum wage. Over the last few years, there has been a push among progressives to
increase the Federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00 an hour.
In 1938, the Federal minimum wage was enacted as part of the Fair Labor
Standards Act (FLSA), to help ensure that all work would be fairly compensated and
that regular employment would provide a decent quality of life. In theory, Congress
makes periodic amendments to the FLSA to increase the federal minimum wage so that
even the lowest-paid jobs within the economy still pay enough for workers to meet their
needs and to help ensure that low-wage workers benefit from economy-wide
improvements in productivity, wages, and living standards. It is important to note that
“within the economy” is key here; companies that pay under the table or do not pay
taxes cannot be held to the standards of minimum wage, though most will adhere to
them, due to the inability for Federal enforcement.
Since the late 1960s, government officials have let the value of the minimum
wage erode, in turn, allowing inflation to slowly reduce minimum wage buying power.
When the minimum wage has been raised, the increases have been far too small to
counter the decline in value, occurring since 1968, when the minimum wage hit its peak
in regards to adjustments made to account for inflation. In 2018, the federal minimum
wage of $7.25 was worth 14.8 percent less than when it was last raised in 2009, again,
after adjusting for inflation. It was also 28.6 percent below its peak value in 1968, when
the minimum wage was the equivalent of $10.15 in 2018 dollars.
This decline in purchasing power means low-wage workers have to work second,
sometimes third jobs and longer hours just to achieve the standard of living that was
considered the bare minimum roughly fifty years ago. Since the 1960s, the United
States has vastly improved labor productivity with technological innovations which could
have allowed workers at all pay levels to enjoy a significantly improved quality of life.
Instead, because of policymakers’ failure to preserve this basic labor standard, a parent
who is the sole breadwinner for the family and who is earning the minimum wage today
does not earn enough through a standard full-time work week of forty hours to bring the
household above the federal poverty line.
When again looking at the response from households across America in
response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one will see that those clamoring to “get back to
work” are doing so because they’ve been put in a situation where, due to what are
arguably unfair wages, they are unable to afford to take off of work so they may take
appropriate and much needed actions to preserve the health of their communities.
Interestingly, these protesters are simply attacking a symptom of a much greater
problem: unfair wages and inadequate social policy across the board. If the majority of
Americans weren’t living paycheck to paycheck, the United States would likely been in a
better position to take this time off without fear of financial repercussions.
The world after the pandemic will be a great test; shiny, frivolous things will be
pushed to “boost the economy”. Who doesn’t like the immediate gratification of a new
pair of shoes, jewelry, or a new TV? Large corporations will push people to spend their
money in big box stores of America while lower- and middle-class Americans are
bleeding out financially. The government will push its citizens to believe that the way of
life prior to the pandemic was working perfectly fine and that we must get back to
"normal". It is imperative that Americans invest in themselves and push for political
leaders who support progressive policy change that benefits everyday people,
regardless of status. This will not be the last world event to potentially destroy lives but
the hope is that moving forward Americans will have a stable safety net in times of
crisis. Through the eyes of life with a Pandemic, Americans have an unprecedented
opportunity to change their lives and the lives of future generations for the better.