Just as COVID-19 poses greater risk to patients with preexisting conditions, the same may be said of communities. When COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. eight months ago, it found a nation afflicted by a preexisting condition: Economic inequality. The result has been devastating.
In predictable and novel ways, the vast economic inequality that preceded COVID-19 has left us more vulnerable to the ravages of the pandemic. Unless we treat that underlying condition — unless we confront economic inequality head on — our nation will remain frail in the face of adversity.
Prior to COVID-19, economic inequality hovered at record levels. As we recently reported, the annual income of Oregon’s ultra-rich — the richest one out of every one thousand Oregonians — topped $5 million in 2018, a new record. Over the past four decades, the income of those at the very top has jumped fivefold, while the income of the typical Oregonian has stagnated. In this respect, Oregon’s experience is fairly typical of that of the nation.
With the majority of economic gains accruing to the well-off, economic insecurity has spread broadly. For a long while now, large swaths of our people — especially our communities of color — have been living paycheck to paycheck. The external shock of the pandemic laid bare this widespread vulnerability.
Today, many Americans confront the question of whether to skip buying food to pay the rent. A recent survey found that more than 60 percent of households with children are experiencing serious financial problems. Communities of color — which contend with long-standing racist economic structures —are faring worse, with 86 percent of Latino and 66 percent of Black households reporting serious financial problems.
The same communities feeling the economic squeeze are also falling ill from the coronavirus at much higher rates. According to the Center for Disease Control, Black Americans, American Indians and Latinos are 2.6 times more likely to get infected by the virus as compared to non-Hispanic whites. And Black Americans are twice as likely to die from the disease as white Americans. Health experts have long known that the economic conditions of individuals and families — their access to safe housing and adequate food, for instance — influence their overall health.
As out-of-balance as things are, it is likely getting worse. Unlike in past recessions, the current downturn has seen the stock market rise, boosting the fortunes of the rich. Some have observed that we appear to be in the midst of the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history.
How to confront economic inequality is no great mystery. We need progressive taxation that demands a lot more of the rich. We need policies that curb the overwhelming power of corporations and strengthen the bargaining hand of workers. We need big investments in public structures that ensure everyone has access to housing, health care, and other basic needs. Perhaps most important, we need the political will to take on the power of the rich and corporations.
The choice before us is clear: Do nothing to confront economic inequality and leave our nation in a debilitated state, or shrink inequality and make our nation resilient.