Fighting for a U.S. federal budget that prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity
Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis
In communities around the world, local public health officials are advising community leaders about the potential threat of coronavirus and preventative measures that are necessary to prevent its spread.
We had planned to be in Little Rock this week with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. But our organizers have decided in consultation with officials there to call off the public events we had scheduled in the interest of public safety.
One of our speakers was going to be Kaleem Nazeem of Jonesboro, who was sentenced to life in prison when he was 17 years old. He was released from prison under the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, which forbids sentencing minors to life without parole.
While we are disappointed to not be able to gather, the new coronavirus already is uncovering the issues we had hoped to raise more clearly than our words and actions could have. This public health crisis makes clear how ignoring poor and low-wealth people impacts all of us.
You have seen the current advisories from the CDC: to prepare for an outbreak that would require widespread quarantines, all Americans have been encouraged to make sure they have a month’s supply of prescription medications and to stock up on the food and other basic necessities we would need if we had to stay inside our homes for a couple of weeks. “Don’t panic, but be prepared” is the mantra.
But the on-going moral crisis of poverty in this country means half of us do not have the resources to essentially pre-pay two weeks’ worth of our basic living expenses. According to an audit we conducted in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, 140 million Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency. For 43% of the U.S. population, the call to be prepared is like asking a sky-diver to get ready to jump from a plane without a parachute.
If half of our population simply does not have the resources to prepare for a public health crisis, that isn’t only a danger to them. It’s bad news for all of us. The vast majority of people working for less than a living wage in America are working in service industry jobs. They are preparing and serving food, cleaning hotels and public buildings, caring for children and the elderly, who are most susceptible to the new coronavirus.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, less than a third of Americans in the bottom 10% of wage earners have access to paid sick leave. These are the very people who cannot afford to miss a paycheck or stockpile resources at home. Even if they are experiencing the symptoms of coronavirus, they are most likely to go to work anyway. The most vulnerable among us are working in the spaces where a disease like this is most likely to spread.
Our communities are also vulnerable because more than 35 million Americans still have no access to health care—and tens of millions more cannot afford to use the coverage they have. While neither vaccines nor cures are available for the coronavirus, we know that people who have not been able to address other health conditions are more vulnerable to a disease like this.
And the poorest among us are least likely to get tested when they are experiencing symptoms. An early story from Miami helps explain why. After businessman Osmel Martinez Azcue traveled to China last month, he experienced flu-like symptoms. When he went the hospital to get tested and make sure it was not the coronavirus, the good news was that he had a normal flu virus. The bad news: $1400 of the cost for the testing wasn’t covered by his insurance.
Because poor and low-income Americans see walking in the door of a clinic or emergency room as cost-prohibitive, we are all in danger. Because undocumented immigrants in this country have been pushed into the shadows and cannot trust information from public officials, we are all in danger. Because the people who keep our cities and towns running are the most vulnerable, we are all in danger. Even the potential of a widespread public health crisis has exposed that we are already experiencing a moral crisis in this nation.
But we have the opportunity to demand that our municipal, state and federal governments address the crisis of poverty in America. The Poor People’s Campaign is building a long-term movement of people from all walks of life who know the power of coming together to reclaim democracy and push these issues that impact all of us into the public discourse.
We are nonpartisan, but we are very political because we know that policy decisions will impact all of us. We have made a clear demand for the Democratic Party to host a primetime televised debate on poverty during the primary season, and we have requested that the DNC and the RNC work together to ensure that these issues are also directly addressed in the general election.
If the new coronavirus is revealing a deeper moral crisis in our democracy, may it also rally us to come together and address the inequality we have neglected for far too long in our public life.