The United States has now reached the once unthinkable death toll of 1 million from COVID-19. How could this happen in the richest country in the world?
In a word, because of poverty – and the political choices that perpetuate it. Our task now is to make different choices.
Americans across the country have suffered during this pandemic. But new research by the Poor People’s Campaign strongly suggests that poor and low-income people have suffered the most. Even controlling for vaccination rates, they found that death rates from COVID-19 in the poorest US counties were nearly double those in wealthier counties. During the deadliest phases of the pandemic, it jumped to five times as much.
White Americans still make up the largest share of poor Americans and those who have died of COVID-19. But blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are significantly overrepresented in America’s poorest counties, and COVID-19 death rates are significantly higher for many communities of color.
Poor Americans are the hardest hit for many reasons. As they make up a large share of low-wage frontline workers, they are at greater risk from the virus and often lack paid sick leave if they contract it. They are also more likely to have no health insurance and to have pre-existing conditions.
But it’s not just that the poor have suffered. Equally important is that the wealthiest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket.
As of last May, the collective wealth of American billionaires had ballooned by $1.7 trillion since the start of the pandemic, according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and Americans for Tax Fairness. Elon Musk alone saw his fortune more than tenfold.
That’s not all. In 2020, more than half of America’s largest low-wage employers bent the rules to give CEOs huge pay raises even as their essential workers took cuts. On average, the CEOs of these companies earned more than $15 million, more than their median employees would earn in eight centuries.
And now those who have benefited the most from this pandemic are trying to pull the rug out from under those who have suffered the most. They are spending heavily to undo some of the most important public policies our country has seen in generations.
President Joe Biden’s US bailout has made testing and vaccines almost universally available. It also provided stimulus payments, expanded unemployment insurance, made the child tax credit more generous and increased assistance for everything from food to health insurance.
These lifesaving provisions have immunized hundreds of millions of Americans and helped millions more through extremely difficult times. The expansion of the Child Tax Credit alone has reduced child poverty by 30% – a stunning, if incomplete, achievement.
But the billionaires, executives and companies who have seen their fortunes soar have poured money into the campaign coffers of politicians who oppose the measures. When Democrat Joe Manchin joined all Senate Republicans in opposing the renewal and expansion of these programs — and was showered with campaign cash in return — they withered on the vine.
Today, child poverty has increased, rising wages have not kept up with inflation, and millions of people are at risk of losing their health insurance. So far, Congress has failed even to continue funding COVID-19 research, vaccines and testing.
Politicians caring for the super-rich at the expense of the 140 million poor or low-income Americans are precisely what made the pandemic so deadly in the first place. We should not compound the tragedy of one million deaths from COVID-19 by letting it continue.
As the midterm elections approach, Congress should act quickly to pass a “billionaire tax” and a windfall tax on pandemic profits, especially on industries, like oil companies, that continue to raise their prices. Lawmakers could use that money to help families meet their basic needs.
Congress should also support COVID-19 vaccination efforts at home and abroad, to prevent both unnecessary suffering and new variants of COVID-19.
Even if Congress does not act, President Biden can. He can take executive action to ease student loan debt for 43 million borrowers, cut prescription drug costs, give workers raises by raising the overtime eligibility threshold and make it harder for businesses having obscene pay differentials between CEOs and employees to get federal contracts.
Finally, we need a multiracial and moral movement to bring the voices of real people to the rustle of dollar bills. On June 18, the Poor People’s Campaign and thousands of supporters will gather on the National Mall for a moral march on Washington and at the polls on June 18. You are invited.
This pandemic has caused almost incomprehensible losses in our country. One thing we must never lose is our determination to treat her pre-existing conditions.
The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Renewal.
Tope Folarin is the executive director of the Institute for Policy Studies.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.