William Torphy delves into the connection between inequality and the effects of Covid-19

OpEdge is turning over today’s column to my dear friend William Torphy, who has written a poignant article which explores how forty years of policies that favor the ultra-rich has weakened America and harmed its ability to fight the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic

Justice and Security for All/William Torphy

Our society is like an aging socialite who wears a ballgown but whose undergarments are in tatters. Under the ballgown of immense wealth for the few is a shredded social-safety-net, a nation in which at least 40 million Americans live in poverty, 15 million households are “food insecure” and at least a half million people are homeless. These are official figures and don’t adequately describe the true picture, a social portrait in which, according to Pew Research, 1% of the population owns 43% of the nation’s wealth, the next 19% owns 50%, with the bottom 80% owning 7%.

This extreme economic inequality and the cultural and political assumptions that support it are the fundamental reasons for a society shattered by healthcare costs, inadequate childcare, widespread under-employment, $1 trillion in student debt, an aged and crumbling infrastructure, a power grid that relies on fossil fuels, and deregulation of corporations and the financial sector. 

The struggles that everyday people face in America are the prime indicators of the real economy, not a temporarily rollicking stock market or “low-wage” unemployment figures. Greed never rewards the majority. The billions reaped by corporations and investors only enriches the few. 

An economy that doesn’t serve the needs of the people is a sick economy. The devastating health and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic are exacerbated by the fragility of our economic system. If rather than accelerating corporate profits and encouraging the concentration of vast fortunes in the hands of a few, we implement serious investments in social services, health care, our children, education, infrastructure, clean energy and drinking water, the economic impact of the pandemic on ordinary Americans would be considerably less severe. As it is, most Americans live from paycheck-to-paycheck and those who are no longer receiving paychecks face financial ruin, even hunger and homelessness. 

A society that invests in the health and well-being of its people is a resilient society, one that can better withstand the threats of pandemics, natural disasters and downturns in the global economy. Decent wages with benefits and universal social-service support provide a cushion for such setbacks. 

Promises to “bring back manufacturing” are empty. We cannot return to the 1950s and 1960s. Corporations have outsourced manufacturing jobs that once expanded the middle-class. According to Department of Labor statistics, 71% of Americans now work in the service sector. Only 6% serve in professional and business services. A majority toil at minimum or near-minimum wage jobs without paid sick leave, health insurance, wage savings plans or pensions. Many have joined the “gig economy” as independent contractors or hold down two or more jobs to make ends meet. 

Though we might complain, we accept this situation as “natural,” just as we accept contemporary capitalism as “natural.” These conditions are artificial, however, ones we’ve been conditioned to accept. Economic inequality, social injustice, racism, xenophobia are choices societies promote and individuals make. Amid the seeming affluence of a glossy culture is an ugly secret: in a system that extracts every last dollar from pockets the way it extracts oil from the earth, a majority of Americans are struggling with debt and can barely make ends meet. The pursuit of happiness has long ago been supplanted by the pursuit of the dollar, but today those dollars principally land in the hands of a few. 

History should teach us that societies in which the few live as kings while the vast majority are deprived, such as Spain in the 16th century and France in the 18th, are unsustainable and doomed to be destroyed from within—either through internal collapse or revolution. 

The $2 trillion-plus Federal relief package is just that—low-ball, temporary relief for Americans and much greater relief for the banks and corporations. If, over the last decade, this kind of investment had been applied to essential social services for the nation’s citizens, the deep economic and social crisis we are now facing would not be nearly so daunting. 

It’s clear that we require a new Administration in the White House, one not based on personal grandiosity, corruption, ignorance and incompetence (and dare I say, sociopathy). We need an Administration that recognizes the health of our society is predicated on the health and well-being of every single individual in it. We must turn away from government buddying-up with Wall Street and corporations, an ever-increasing military budget ($718 billion in 2020), senseless wars; according to the Congressional Budget Office, more than $2.5 trillion so far for the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Ninety-one top corporations paid no taxes in 2018. Tax breaks for corporations must be replaced by greater investment in policies that benefit all: a comprehensive healthcare system, improving our crumbling infrastructure, promoting education, retraining programs for jobs in communication, technology and renewable energy. 

If there is one silver lining to the global pandemic, it’s that this crisis should enable us to view our dire situation more clearly and to identify society’s stress points. With that knowledge, we can reconfigure our social priorities, placing the health and basic needs of our citizens above the well-being of Wall Street and the corporations. We must adopt policies that help protect us against recurring viruses and also empower us to be better prepared for economic recovery in the future. Realistic social and economic policies that provide for the many and promote the greater good not only insure society’s health and well-being, but indeed, humanity’s continuance.

Let’s not waste this crisis. That’s what we did last time, when during the last recession the Feds rode to the rescue, saving mortgage companies but not people with mortgages, shoring up the banks but forgetting their depositors, and infusing billions into corporations without demanding fair treatment and wages for their workers. 

Will we have learned from the past and will we possess the courage to do it differently this time?

Already, nearly all funding from the $350 billion Payroll Protection Program designed to help support furloughed and laid-off employees of shuttered small businesses has gone to big businesses with high-powered attorneys and big-time relationships with banks. Altogether, seventy-five publicly-traded corporations received $300 billion of taxpayer’s money so far.

The Feds claim the next round of funding will “trickle-down” to mom-and-pop businesses. Haven’t we heard this before?

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