On the first night of the Democratic National Convention, former First Lady Michelle Obama offered some grim truths about how policy choices in response to COVID-19 have harmed American households: “More than 150,000 people have died, and our economy is in shambles… It has left millions of people jobless. Too many have lost their health care; too many are struggling to take care of basic necessities like food and rent; too many communities have been left in the lurch to grapple with whether and how to open our schools safely.”
In July, the unemployment rate for white men was 8.3 percent—Black men faced an unemployment rate 83 percent higher.
As has been clear since the beginning of the pandemic, the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 policies are not playing out equally in all communities, but instead follow long-standing patterns of racial and economic inequity. In July, the unemployment rate for white men was 8.3 percent—Black men faced an unemployment rate 83 percent higher. About 10 percent of white renters were concerned about paying rent, compared to 44.2 percent of Black renters—and more than half of Latinx renters—who say they have “slight confidence” or “no confidence” that they will be able to pay next month’s rent. From coronavirus infection and death rates to questions about who can afford to educate their children in a “learning pod” with a private tutor, virtually every aspect of the crisis is unfolding in ways that reinforce and deepen racial inequality.
After detailing the catastrophic failures of policy on our economy, society, and democracy, Michelle Obama concluded with a chilling prediction: “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will...”
The former First Lady was making a partisan point, but the underlying policy idea is relevant to both parties: If policymakers do not take bold and transformative action to offer relief to the hardest hit communities and restructure our society along more equitable lines, trends can and will get worse.
One of the greatest dangers is an austerity mindset—a false narrative that, in the words of former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, “the pantry is going to be bare” in terms of the federal budget. For the more than 8 million Black and Latinx households who report not having enough to eat in the past week, the pantry really is bare. But it’s not the case that the federal government is out of money.
Deficit fear-mongering is fundamentally a lie: the U.S. has abundant resources.
Deficit fear-mongering is fundamentally a lie: the U.S. has abundant resources. Yet for decades politicians have deployed the rhetoric of scarcity to attack policies they oppose for ideological reasons and out of a fundamentally racist perspective that regards Black and brown communities as somehow less deserving of investment. Professed concerns about budget deficits and “bare pantries” consistently melt away in the face of a military appropriations bill or a big tax cut for the wealthy. But the nation is suddenly out of money when it comes to getting protective gear for health care workers, such as licensed practical nurses, who are disproportionately Black women—some of the workers providing the most direct, hands-on care to COVID-19 patients.
The slow and uneven recovery from the nation’s last recession shows that austerity is self-defeating on its own terms, with reductions in public spending at the federal, state, and local levels undercutting economic demand and slowing recovery. Yet now the nation appears ready to follow the same disastrous path: With business closures and layoffs sharply reducing tax revenues, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that state budget shortfalls will total $555 billion over the next 3 fiscal years. Since states are required to balance their budgets every year, these shortfalls set the stage for laying off public workers and enacting punishing cuts to essential services including health cares, schools, and housing programs—in other words, more austerity and more unequally distributed economic pain. The federal government has the resources to provide the support struggling households and state and local governments need. If it fails to do so, things will indeed get worse.