The United States Has Failed Its Most Vulnerable Citizens
More than six months after COVID-19 reached the country, there is still no safety net for high-risk people
Around the globe, scientists and political leaders have been quick to reach the same conclusion about the coronavirus pandemic:
We must protect the people at the highest risk of death or serious complications.
That needs to be our top priority, ahead of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the country’s unemployment rate, the president’s polling averages, and the Democratic Party’s thirst for John Kasich.
Here’s what the White House’s guidelines say about the matter:
ALL VULNERABLE INDIVIDUALS should continue to shelter in place. Members of households with vulnerable residents should be aware that by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home. Precautions should be taken to isolate from vulnerable residents.
That’s the recommendation for any state that has not reached Stage 3 of the process — a level of control over the pandemic only reached in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and Maine. In those states, high-risk individuals can begin limited socializing, but in the other 45 and Washington D.C., they should remain in lockdown.
That is especially true in the 35 states that COVID Exit Strategy has in its lowest two categories, including 21 rated at “uncontrolled spread.”
“Vulnerable” individuals aren’t just the elderly. There’s another category — people who have specific pre-existing medical issues:
1. Elderly individuals.
2. Individuals with serious underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune system is compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer and other conditions requiring such therapy. (Source: White House Reopening Guidelines)
That second category includes a lot of people, many of whom don’t have the means to shelter in place without significant financial support. That’s a substantial reason for the horrific death toll in large urban areas such as New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit.
The $600/week federal unemployment benefit was a good start at protecting that segment of the population, but it only applied to the ones that lost their jobs. If you were working for lousy money in a meatpacking plant or on a farm, you weren’t eligible for the money.
Now, of course, no one is eligible for it, as it expired on July 25. The House Democrats passed a bill months ago to extend the benefit through January, but the Republicans never considered the legislation.
They didn’t do anything. They spent so much time squabbling among themselves that the clock ran out without the Senate GOP announcing a proposal, much less a bill.
The Trump administration wants a 70% wage-replacement system. That’s great for lawyers and brokers who have been furloughed — someone who makes $2,000 a week would get a weekly check of $1,400 — but a minimum-wage worker would only get $203.
Luckily, the Republicans can’t implement that plan at the moment — state unemployment systems aren’t sophisticated enough to figure out 70% of someone’s weekly wage.
As Plan B, the Republicans want to drop the weekly rate to $200 for everyone. That’s not enough to live on, especially when states are providing as little as $150/week.
Economists are almost unanimous in saying the $600 benefit has been a success. It has allowed millions of unemployed Americans to pay rents and mortgages, shelter in place, and spend enough money to keep the economy going.
“The best way to stimulate the economy is from the bottom up — putting money into the pockets of lower-income people who will spend it. The worst way is from the top down — putting money into the pockets of wealthy people who will save it.” — Robert Reich, July 24, 2020
However, the Republicans are focused entirely on the unemployment rate, so they see the $600 as a “disincentive” for people to get jobs.
“We’re going to make sure that we don’t pay people more money to stay home than go to work.” — President Donald J. Trump, July 20, 2020
There’s a moral debate over not forcing people to work low-paying jobs to exist, but we can focus on it after the pandemic. Right now, we need a plan to make it economically feasible for high-risk individuals to stay home.
A Simple Proposal
I propose a $500/week payment to all at-risk people and a tax credit for any employer who lets their high-risk employees work from home.
That provides incentives to create WFH jobs and provides a reason for vulnerable people to work from home. That’s the situation we need to keep them safe and financially stable.
We still need to enhance the unemployment system, because there simply aren’t jobs for many people. In an ideal world, state benefits could take care of them, but they don’t work, and there’s no time to fix them while COVID-19 roars across the country.
Finally, we need to institute a mortgage/rent freeze and provide support to landlords and mortgage companies. During a pandemic, no one should be worried about having somewhere to live.
To sum this up:
- Provide a firm financial base for every high-risk individual, no matter their employment status.
- Reward employers who find ways to allow vulnerable workers to perform their jobs from home.
- Enhance unemployment benefits, so people on furlough have money to put back into the economy.
- Institute a freeze on rents and mortgages and support the institutions that collect them.
Is that going to be expensive? Absolutely, especially when you add in support for schools and billions for testing and contact-tracing programs.
We had six months to control the coronavirus. We failed.
This proposal is the only way to keep things from getting even worse.