The COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to confront some harsh realities in America today and should prompt a much broader effort to come out of this troubling chapter in our history stronger, better and more secure. Because, while we are all desperate to get back to normal, normal is not good enough.
Normal is more than two million people behind bars and not nearly enough support for the formerly incarcerated trying to reenter society. Normal is a health care system that leaves millions of Americans uninsured and the rest of us paying more than any other country in the world. Normal is rising sea levels and a retreat from addressing climate change. Normal is a defense budget larger than the combined defense budgets of the next seven countries.
Normal is millions of low-income students leaving school without the skills to get a job and millions of college graduates drowning in debt. Normal is a digital divide that denies millions of students and families the same access to technology most of us take for granted. Normal is 100,000 Americans injured or killed with guns each year and school children doing live shooter drills.
Normal is most working people living paycheck to paycheck and unable to cope with a $400 emergency. Normal is limited family leave and no support for child or elder care. Normal is rising substance abuse and declining life expectancy in communities from urban to rural.
Normal is 38 million American households paying too much for a roof overhead and half a million people sleeping on the streets every night. Normal is the top one percent of America having more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and CEO’s earning nearly 300 times more than their employees. Normal is billionaires paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes than their secretaries.
Lawmakers in Washington just passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus that bails out existing companies and small businesses, helps the newly unemployed, and provides some support to state and local governments. There’s also money for the health care industry, checks for working families and the poor, and some relief from student loans.
While these needs are all real in this crisis, that $2.2 trillion of our money will do nothing to change the structural inequities in our society. As an African-American emergency room doctor in Chicago wrote, “To really address the issue of African American health risks in the age of corona virus, we need to acknowledge the root causes.”
Those root causes include racism and discrimination. They include disinvestment in inner-city communities. They include our broken politics that have paralyzed governments and our misguided tax and labor policies that have consolidated wealth and hollowed out the middle class.
As Congress considers additional measures needed to recover from the COVID crisis, let’s think a little harder about the world we want and need rather than the world we have. Let’s imagine a world where incarceration is a last resort rather than the default solution to crime. Let’s imagine a world where guns are kept from people who shouldn’t have them.
Let’s imagine a world where health care and housing are affordable and available to everyone, along with paid family leave, child care and elder care. Let’s imagine a world where on-line learning is accessible to every student who needs it.
Let’s imagine a world where science rather than politics drives our response to climate change. Let’s imagine a world where elected officials are held accountable for misleading us and where they are unable to rig elections with gerrymandering and voter suppression.
Finally, let’s imagine a world where there’s plenty of incentive to work hard and even get rich but there are some common-sense measures in place to ensure that a tiny few can’t capture an obscene amount of the nation’s wealth while the majority of Americans struggle.
In the world we can imagine, shared prosperity is possible by recommitting to the basic middle-class promise: a good job that can support a family, affordable housing, health care and education, and a dignified and secure retirement.
The COVID crisis will be with us for several more months, but the economic fallout will be with us for years, and the underlying inequities will be with us forever if we don’t do something about them. It’s time to seize the moment and create a new normal.
Peter Cunningham is a communications consultant in Chicago.