By SEAN GOODBODY
“Americans are extremely good at blaming the failures of their government on their own friends and neighbors. Of course people aren’t in lockdown — there’s no government mandate and no money.”
— Author P.E. Moskowitz
The basis of government on this continent is the social contract: People agree to cooperate in exchange for social benefits. Essentially, we sacrifice some individual freedom. In return, we have the protection of the state.
As the pandemic flared in the spring and unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, progressive groups and individuals urged governments to support Americans while we stayed home: freeze rent payments, freeze student loan payments, pay extended unemployment benefits, prohibit evictions, pay monthly cash stimulus checks. With these benefits, they argued, people would stay home, we could control the virus, and hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved.
The government, in turn, did the bare minimum for average Americans: paid mid- and low-earning Americans $1,200 (once), paid limited unemployment benefits, and froze student loan payments. (Notable: $600 in weekly special unemployment benefits was more than 69% of laid-off people made working their normal job. Somehow, the conclusion we reached was to end the payments, not examine why people are paid poverty wages.)
And so people had to work. Those in so-called “essential” jobs have been putting their health on the line since March. Others made the difficult choice to work when the alternative was poverty. And the burden of child care has fallen overwhelmingly on women, who have had to leave the workforce en masse. What’s more: 7.7 million Americans and 6.9 million of their dependents — 14.6 million people — have lost their employer-provided health insurance from the pandemic-induced recession.
Eight months later, and average Americans haven’t gotten one additional ounce of public support. Federal and state governments sent a message with their checkbook: “Keep working at all costs. But then do not socialize, do anything fun, or visit family.” Professor Kristin Grogan said it best: “We have lost so many things this year while going to extraordinary lengths to preserve work and work alone.”
Meanwhile, for high earners and corporate entities, the government money flowed like wine: a big tax cut for the rich and for employers, with deregulations and bailouts for the biggest firms. Fancy celebrities post pictures of extravagant, isolated vacations to “get away from the virus.” The stock market (of which the richest 1% of Americans own about half) is at an all-time high. And Swiss bank UBS reported that billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter (27.5%) at the height of the crisis from April to July. The richest people relax in their second homes, away from COVID outbreaks, and wait the virus out.
Ordinary people have held up their end of the social contract: we’ve worked and been at risk since March. In return, the government abdicated its part of the social contract and abandoned us. Yet it still has the nerve to ask us to work our tails off while admonishing us to “be responsible” once we clock out. We’re told to live like hard-working monks. We shouldn’t be shocked that it’s hard for people to continue falling in line with COVID protocols.
And still the suffering continues. We have already sustained major casualties: nearly 250,000 dead, over 100,000 cases daily over the past few weeks, more than 1,000 per dead per day. And medical experts tell us this will be a dark, dark winter.
As the country experiences a Sept. 11-sized death toll twice per week, the mounting psychological toll of this virus is unspeakable. Yet politicians continue to ignore the financial and mental strain of the virus, and still wring their hands about helping Americans during the worst public health crisis in centuries.
A recent headline from the satire magazine “Reductress” says it all: “Sorry If I Seem Out of It! I’m Just a Little Tired of Having No Job, Friends, or Family.” Americans are sick of it.
To steal lines from the surprise hit political ad of the fall from Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey: “There’s an invisible contract we all signed at birth. A promise: every hour we work means longer days of freedom and security... All across America, the essential people are demanding a new deal... We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.”
Sean Goodbody is a Grand Junction attorney representing injured workers all over western Colorado. Email email@example.com.