Those Americans who are fortunate enough to be healthy and financially secure, with jobs that likely will survive the pandemic, no doubt are daydreaming about the eventual return to normal. When will we go back to work and school, sit down at a restaurant, shake a stranger’s hand, hug a friend, get a haircut?
That version of “normal” indeed sounds blissful, but many have reason to hope that not everything reverts strictly to late-2019 status.
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the gap between haves and have-nots in American society and how those differences affect us all. If that enhanced awareness leads to an economy that is fairer for all workers, America might just end up stronger for it.
Income inequality certainly isn’t news; policymakers have been warning about it for many years. A report by the Pew Research Center in February said that in 2018 the nation’s top 20% of earners brought in 52% of all U.S. income — more than the entire remaining 80%. In 1968, the top fifth earned only 43% of total income. Income inequality in the U.S. is the worst among G7 nations.
Last year and before, many Americans could go about their business without thinking much of those struggling on the margins.
The pandemic has changed that. Suddenly it matters that so many people don’t have sick leave or health insurance, because someone who can’t afford to miss work, much less pay for an expensive test and treatment, is more likely to skip the doctor visit and hope for the best.
Worse, those jobs are concentrated in fields — food service, retail, caring for children or the elderly — with high person-to-person contact.
Beyond the implications for public health, the lack of a personal safety net means that a setback such as getting sick or losing a job in the pandemic-related economic downturn can push a family into a downward spiral that puts financial security that much further out of reach. Having too many people unable to reach prosperity and security no matter how many hours they work is a recipe for social strife.
Less dire, but still significant, is the disadvantage of those without broadband internet access. That makes it harder for kids to keep up with school during the shutdown and for parents to work from home, even if their job allows it.
Advocates for low-income families have seized on the moment to push for worker-friendly changes. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is among those pushing for universal paid sick leave. The pandemic experience surely will affect the continuing health care debate.
Ohio Democrats, too, are pushing for guaranteed paid sick leave, expanded unemployment compensation and other supports for working families in response to the pandemic.
Will these be viewed as temporary necessities or a move toward the way the economy always should work?
The current awareness of low-wage workers’ plight no doubt is headed for a collision with the fact of shrinking government revenues, as income tax and sales tax collections fall with the economy.
But we hope that, when the pandemic has passed and the economy is recovering, policymakers and the public alike will remember one of the lessons of the crisis: An economy that leaves too many people unprotected from illness and instability makes a whole society more vulnerable.
— The Canton Repository, April 5; Online: https://bit.ly/2RiPdSW