Forty-seven percent (that’s 47%) of Americans do not have $400. in cash available for an unexpected emergency.
This is a statistic that has stuck with me for a very long time, one that reveals most directly a dysfunctional economy, and now with the Covid-19 crisis places at least half of all Americans in deep financial peril that threatens their very survival. That so many of our citizens constantly live on the edge from paycheck-to-paycheck is unacceptable in a nation of such seeming affluence, behind which is a darker reality, a reality in which a majority of Americans struggle daily to keep their heads above the waters of poverty that swirl around them.
A capitalistic economic structure based on corporate profiteering, exploitation of labor and low taxes for the wealthy is clearly an unsustainable system that threatens the vast majority. The Covid-19 crisis we’re now facing only underscores the fragile nature of this economy, based as it is on corporate profits, outsourcing the means of production, nonunion workers and the “gig economy,” an inequitable tax system, and a broken healthcare system. These factors, as well as others, have contributed to an unacceptable level of income inequality in the U.S., the highest among all post-industrialized nations. No amount of consumerism can hide the ugly fact that Americans are drowning in debt and facing daily economic instability. The current crisis will only exacerbate the desperation that so many have been experiencing for years, many who will be unable to pay their rent or mortgage, who will need to borrow on their credit cards to pay for critical necessities like food. A system that doesn’t begin to adequately address the basic needs of the people is simply unacceptable.
A market-driven, piecemeal health care system, dysfunctional in normal times, is now strained to the breaking-point under the deluge of citizens stricken with this virus. There will be no better time to examine this unsustainable situation once the current crisis has, at least temporarily, passed. Discussions among the candidates at the various Democratic Presidential Debates reflect how important the subject of healthcare costs are to the voters. Nearly 28 million Americans live without health insurance of any kind, an uptick from figures in 2016 before the present Administration took power. 45% of adults 19 to 64 (the eligible age for Medicare) are inadequately insured, meaning deficiencies in healthcare coverage could potentially ruin them financially if they required any major care. Medical costs are the #1 reason people file for bankruptcy in the U.S. A mere overhaul of this broken structure is inadequate. We require a national universal healthcare system like that of Canada and most European nations (where healthcare costs per capita are about half of what they are in the U.S.). Programs like those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are vital for the economic and personal health of the entire nation.
Concurrent with the fight to institute Universal Healthcare is the need to reinstate a truly progressive tax system to pay for it as well as other measures that will help bring Americans more sustainable, stable lives. The highest tax rate through much of the 20th Century was 78%. Despite loopholes and other legal devices to avoid taxation, corporations and the wealthy in this country rightfully paid a hefty share of their earnings to Federal government, taxes that paid for the infrastructure that grew their businesses while benefitting the lives of their workers who made their profits possible. The highest tax bracket in 2019 was 37%, which effectively means that the tax contributions of corporations and the super-rich has been cut in half, increasing national debt, declining the infrastructure and threatening social programs like Social Security and Medicare, which a majority of people over 65 primarily depend upon for survival.
As corporate profits and the roster of billionaires have grown, so too have decent-paying jobs for many Americans disappeared. In pursuing profits for their investors (most of them in precarious retirement funds tied to the market), corporations have gutted manufacturing jobs in this country, outsourcing them overseas where low wage workers and lax safety codes guarantee even greater profits. The rise of the “Rust Belt” beginning in the 1970s was the result of outsourcing. Communities in which workers making union-negotiated wages could comfortably purchase a home and an automobile as well as send their kids to college have been replaced by “service-sector” deserts whose citizens work at minimum wages without any of those benefits previous generations enjoyed. A tour through thousands of towns all over the U.S. reveal a disquieting level of poverty, substandard education, drug abuse and despair, conditions that devastate lives and waste potential talent and productivity.
The Covid-19 crisis will only exacerbate the already-fragile nature of our economic system. The aftermath will bring high unemployment, loss of businesses, increased personal debt, an exhausted, depleted healthcare community, and increased poverty that will create even greater stress on an already deficient social safety net. It is vitally important that we re-envision what our nation, and in fact the entire global economy, is about if we are to not only survive further pandemics but also address the critical challenges of structural poverty and planetary climate change. My hope is that we will be pushed to take the actions needed to meet these challenges creatively and equitably, to reimagine a future in which “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not an empty promise.
William’s critical reviews and articles have appeared in Sebastian Quill, Artweek, High Performance, Expo-see, and the Occupy SF anthology. Short stories have appeared in a number of journals, including Bryant Literary Review, The Fictional Café, Sun Star Quarterly, ImageOutWrite, Burningword Literary Journal, Chelsea Station, Arlington Literary Journal and The Metaworker. He lives in the San Francisco area where he works as an art curator.