The Inequality of COVID-19

April 19, 2020

How the coronavirus crisis is exacerbating structural injustice.

The Roosevelt Rundown is an email series featuring the Roosevelt Institute’s top stories of the week.

Dismantling Inequality and Building Economic Resilience

As the New York Times editorial board writes in a new series on inequality and a post-COVID economy, “the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare once again the incomplete nature of the American project—the great distance between the realities of life and death in the United States and the values enunciated in its founding documents.” This crisis has held a mirror to our patchwork health care system, labor market, and social safety net. The reflection captures a familiar truth: People of colorwomen, and low-income workers are bearing the brunt of our national suffering. In a statement this week, progressive organization leaders—including Roosevelt President & CEO Felicia Wong—called on Congress to act. “We urge Congress to move quickly to pass additional legislation adhering to . . . principles to prioritize aiding families and communities, especially Black and brown people who are disproportionately harmed by both the public health and economic crises, and making the structural changes needed to make our economy more resilient in the long term.” Read more.

  • Hidden rules of race: Black Americans have faced alarmingly disproportionate rates of infection and hospitalization—in part, early findings show, because doctors are less likely to refer them for testing. As Roosevelt Managing Director of Communications Kendra Bozarth and Groundwork Collaborative Deputy Executive Director Angela Hanks explain in Ms. Magazine, housing discrimination, environmental racism, and employment discrimination have put Black women at particular risk. “It’s often said that when white America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu,” they write. “But that is not simply natural law; it is the direct result of policy choices that allow such an injustice to persist.” Read on.
  • Another angle: “After the pandemic is conquered, we’ll still face two other crises: our inequality crisis and our climate crisis,” Roosevelt Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz writes for the American Prospect. “Addressing each of these will require significant increases in government spending . . . If we had to have a larger deficit to save the planet, the choice should be a no-brainer. But moving towards a greener economy, even financed by deficits, will lead us to a more robust and more innovative economy—and as we’ve learned time and time again, that could even lead to lower deficit.” Read more.

The Unemployment Crisis

The 17 million unemployment claims filed in the last month have pushed the national unemployment rate to heights unseen since the Great Depression. As Roosevelt Fellow Brishen Rogers writes for Boston Review, “the pandemic is highlighting the fragility of our labor markets just as much as the fragility of our public health and welfare systems. In the short term we’ll need to focus on providing health care, income support, and other needed goods and services to all. But as we take the economy out of its induced coma, we’ll also have to address more fundamental questions: What kinds of jobs do we want and need? What sorts of labor markets and other policies can deliver them? And at the most basic level, how do we want our state, society, and economy to relate to one another?” Read more and watch Roosevelt Director of Progressive Thought Mike Konczal and Community Change President Dorian Warren make meaning of the unemployment numbers.

  • Remote inequality: “A month into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are adjusting to the new routine of working from home. But not all workers have this option,” Roosevelt Fellows Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Suresh Naidu write in a Washington Post op-ed (co-written with Adam Reich and Patrick Youngblood). “That is especially true for the low-wage, service-sector workers responsible for providing the food and basic home necessities needed to keep society going. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 73 percent of working-age adults with a postgraduate education said they had worked from home because of the virus, while only 22 percent of those with a high school degree or less reported the same.” Read on.

Health Care Is a Public Good

“There are many reasons the US health care system is so ill-equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude. One of them is the decades-long trend of hospital mergers and closures that have reduced access to care in communities across the nation,” Roosevelt Director of Health Equity Andrea Flynn and Institute for Local Self-Reliance Senior Researcher Ron Knox write for the Washington Post. “Hospital mergers and closures have contributed to the reduction in the number of hospital beds in the United States, from around 1.5 million in 1975 to just more than 900,000 in 2017 . . . A broader lesson we should take from this moment is that public health is—as most other countries in the world believe—a public good, and public goods require broad public investments.” Read on.

  • A state solution: “To face the coronavirus crisis head on, state governments must use their powers to get masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to the doctors and nurses that need them the most. As a first step, state governments should institute voluntary PPE buyback programs without delay. To pay for the policy, state governments can use some of the $150 billion the recent stimulus package gave them,” Roosevelt Fellow Jacob Robbins argues in a CNN opinion piece. Read more.

Just Send Checks

“. . . at the moment, the US economy is threatened not just by the coronavirus, but also by the American obsession with making sure that people don’t end up with more than they deserve,” Roosevelt Fellow Mehrsa Baradaran writes for The Atlantic. “The CARES Act—the $2 trillion relief bill that Congress recently passed—promises one-time payments of up to $1,200 to most American adults. It also includes higher benefits for millions of people who suddenly find themselves unemployed. Yet aid to individuals makes up only about a quarter of the relief package . . . Unlike poor people, corporations are not punished for failing to save their money.” Next week, a new Roosevelt report from Baradaran will explore why only a redesigned financial system can achieve true financial inclusion and equity.

How Regulatory Review Can Help Respond to Existential Threats

Too often, institutional roadblocks hinder adequate federal responses to structural emergencies like the COVID-19 crisis. In a new report for the Great Democracy Initiative, Roosevelt Fellow Todd Tucker and Rajesh D. Nayak—a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School—suggest a novel solution: restructuring the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Learn more about the little-known government agency and read the full report here.

What We’re Reading

America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why. – New York Times

When Will the Economy Be Good Again? – Vox

We’re Replicating the Mistakes of 2008 – The Atlantic

Stiglitz Calls for ‘Super Chapter 11’ to Avoid Systemic Collapse – Bloomberg

Why Trump Is So Reluctant to Put the Economy on a War Footing – The Week

“You Can Poison People and Get Away with It”: Green New Deal Coauthor on Poverty and Climate Crisis – Salon

9 Ideas Joe Biden Should Steal from His Democratic Rivals – Vox

The Nobel-Winning Economist Who Wants You to Read More Fiction – New York Times