The Senate announced that the negotiations for second round of COVID-19 stimulus checks will be shelved until they reconvene September 8th. One would argue that in such a perilous time — one marked by significant blitz of evictions as moratoriums on rent end and an attempt to gut the USPS to unambiguously suppress voting — another recess should not be the priority of Congress. This looks more like a full-blown depression every hour, and the $1200 has run out since the April 11th checks. The average rent payment in the U.S is over $1400 dollars. The initial round of stimulus “relief” was hastily eaten up by rent, and is observably not enough to supplement even the lowest threshold of financing basic necessities.
In the midst of this chaos I simply cannot help but think about people already standing by to weather economic catastrophe before the pandemic, whose situation is markedly worsening by the utter failure of government to implement a robust safety net. Abject poverty is a pubic health crisis. And for the most vulnerable Americans, they have been largely forgotten.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune of surveying powerful literature explaining the depth to which poverty, and the socioeconomic inequality it heightens, is both strictly urgent and a unique product of American policy engineering. The trenchant hardship and suffering observed today is partially a consequence of several decades of a failed war on poverty by the Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan administrations — whereby its justification was the fully realized by the racist fable of social pathology, and that imposing tougher standards to crackdown on crime was seen as a necessary remedy to the imagined consequences of these beliefs. The War on Drugs only exacerbated the very thing these administrations believed over-policing would solve. And the era that proceeds this violent punitive period, rightfully referred to as the time of New Jim Crow, has done little to actually position the country to be within reach of true desegregation or meaningful racial justice.
A devastating component to poverty is realizing how the history of American slavery — how the years of Jim Crow that proceeded the Civil War, and racially sanctioned federal housing policy that not only sharpened the effects of segregation, but prevented generations of Black Americans from accumulating mass wealth and accessing the formal economy — has touched every corner of this country. The legacy of white-imposed black disadvantage, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” is the unambiguous mandate of decades of said federal housing policy. From prohibitory covenants (surviving on the cooperation of courts and local governments in housing deed clauses) to redlining and blockbusting, this socially sanctioned socioeconomic arc is the key to realizing how deeply this disadvantage is so characteristic of the United States.
According to the US Census Bureau and from data obtained by povertyusa.org, “5.3% of the population—or 17.3 million people—live in deep poverty, with incomes below 50% of their poverty thresholds,” and it obviously does not hurt every demographic equally. This is a violent cycle, and the blunt force of the burden falls disproportionately on Black and Brown Americans. Yet there are still shared myths of poverty that propagate amongst libertarians and right-wing members alike: that poverty is a lack of character. In other words, they define poverty as the lack of will to work hard and that “welfare queens” are a looming threat, that precious tax dollars are being allocated to support those who are assumed to already posses the means to help themselves. This lazy argument, by the way, never seems to venture into the realm of how Republicans have, time after time, given prohibitively large tax breaks to giant conglomerates and other major corporations who already evade taxes—the very thing they accuse poor people of doing routinely. It is a common thought on the right that by sheer power of will can one lift themselves out of this violent, generational, trap. They argue the since-debunked myth that “a rising tide can lift all boats,” that bloated growth and higher GDP can serve as a magical elixir to eradicating poverty, but this is proven false time and time again. Right-wingers become infuriated because, since labor exploitation is overly romanticized as being of the upmost virtue, they claim that they do not want to support people collecting “free money,” and paying people to stay at home (even though that’s precisely what should happen during the deadliest pandemic in 100 years). But it is not tax free money. People who collect unemployment, by no decision of their own, have taxes automatically deducted from each week’s payment. I know because I was in that spot after losing both of my jobs to the pandemic, so this is not the fraudulent drain on our economy they should be worried about.
Poverty, though, is ultimately not a lack of moral character or will, it’s merely the lack of money. If anything, this pandemic has only made the case for a universal guaranteed income stronger, with several economists publishing work to substantiate it — or at least a partial reckoning that a systematic dissolve of our safety nets only further serves to position us toward a seemingly irreversible path to utter turmoil. This is all without mentioning how climate change causes disastrous harm to poor people. The lack of will only stems from the political barriers to remedy the condition, and time is running out. To avoid repeating the same mistakes from the past, we can’t continue thinking about our current challenges without so much a glance at the facts or historical consequences.