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Isn’t it time everyone had enough?

As our nation pivots from containing the coronavirus to restoring economic vigor, a driving consideration should be doing more to ensure that every citizen has enough nutrition, health care and income.

The Delaware Army National Guard and volunteers served hundreds of families last week at drive-thru food bank in Dover, Del.
The Delaware Army National Guard and volunteers served hundreds of families last week at drive-thru food bank in Dover, Del.
William BretzgerAP

One thing Covid-19 has made indisputably clear: in Chicago as in the nation, a significant portion of the population has been living all along, in a prosperous nation, without enough.

Not enough nutrition, not enough health care and not enough compensation.

As our national conversation pivots from containing the virus to restoring economic vigor, central to any solution must be the drive to ensure that every citizen has enough.

Ours is not the first generation to see a crisis reveal the incivility of civilization. In the 14th Century, as in ours, a sudden rise in dazzling wealth for some coincided with a precipitous fall into poverty for others. Wise minds bemoaned the disequilibrium. In one of the most popular works of the day, “Roman de la Rose,” the poet Jean de Meun argued for “soufficiance” (enough-ness) as the dream state of abundance — where no one has too little and no one has too much.

We are not, of course, in the 14th Century. Life is longer and generally more comfortable. Scientific discoveries, expansion of education, leaps in transportation, communication and improved modes of governance have extended life expectancy, suggested opportunity and softened pain.

In this context, as Mayor Lightfoot makes clear, the fact that a large segment of our population lives without enough to live without fear is an indictment.

No one doubts we are at a crossroads. “We have reached this point not only because of the pandemic but because of our refusal to confront the inequities and self-deceit that have characterized our shared life for decades,” notes the writer and historian Rebecca Solnit. “Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe and an obscenity of inequality.”

While skeptics sneer at suggestions of making meaningful change in the predictably cash-poor days ahead, historians know better.

Kyle Harper, professor of history at University of Oklahoma, notes that earlier physical crises have opened opportunities for positive reform. “The sense that we are watching some of the seams of our social fabric come apart is not mistaken,” he writes, “and our past reminds us that biological shocks often coincide with moments of transformation and change—and sometimes even progress.”

But only sometimes. Reform will be hard. Persons for whom the status quo before the pandemic included more than enough will focus on preserving what was rather than advancing to what should be.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, for example, on learning the $600 federal supplement to unemployment benefits would provide recipients in some states with more income than they had while employed, responded not by asking how people could have been living on what is considered less than a living wage (enough) before the pandemic, but by calling for the amount to be cut — quickly.

Nothing could be less efficient. The rising death tolls and deepening financial hardship in Chicago, as around the country, demonstrate the need for reform in health care funding, prison over-crowding and compensation levels so clearly that citizens should resist tactics of retreat.

Elemental change may already be under way beyond the reach of designated change agents. As Bill Gates’ told PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, people seem to be adjusting personally. When asked if he thought rapid financial recovery was possible, Gates hesitated, suggesting that the sense of powerlessness and empathy the pandemic has raised across the populace might inspire people to bring more care than gusto to the marketplace.

On this, too, the 14th Century offers insights.

In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer singles out the modest parson for particular affection and admiration. Quietly riding among those who might otherwise be considered more successful — clever scoundrels and self-absorbed professionals — the parson parries a quest for personal prominence and wealth. Living simply so that his parishioners could live without pain, “He koude in litel thyng have suffisaunce.” (“He could, in not much, have enough.”).

Such fresh thinking would enable the recovery to spread beyond the obvious.

Susanne Dumbleton is professor emeritus and former dean at DePaul University. She earned a Ph.D. in Medieval English Literature.

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