As we all confront the ripple effects of the an unprecedented pandemic throughout North Carolina, we should pause to acknowledge the fundamental lesson that our fates are intertwined. And we should not let this moment pass without demanding that public leaders put people and communities first as they craft solutions to our public health and economic realities.
This week, Congress took a step in that direction when it passed legislation that includes direct payments to people to who are losing work hours or losing their jobs. This move represents a long overdue recognition of the critical role cash income plays in meeting basic needs and the close link between the financial stability of individual households and the health of the economy for all of us. The bipartisan support for this idea is a sign that we can shift our thinking about how we make policies, who we listen to in that process, and how our assumptions have failed to acknowledge the centrality of human dignity.
This is, in short, the moment to rewrite the rules. This is the moment to build on this first step by Congress, harness this public moment in which millions of Americans are experiencing firsthand how frayed our public response systems are — from unemployment to hospital capacity — to demand solutions that don’t just respond compassionately and effectively in the present crisis, but that will also support people’s wellbeing in more durable ways beyond this moment.
The ongoing harms of the COVID-19 pandemic on people and communities should serve as a mirror for us all to confront the blemishes of our society. One in four working people in North Carolina are paid poverty level wages. Their hard work is no protection against a pandemic and their work delivers no promise of security or wellbeing.
Can they afford to stay home to take care of a sick child and risk the loss of a job? Must their family get by in subpar housing that makes them sick so that they can put food on the table? Can they make a visit to the doctor that doesn’t swamp childcare costs that month?
The novel coronavirus may open the eyes of more people to the reality of what happens when our policy choices fail to imagine something better for our society, our neighbors, and all of us. This is a reality that many in our communities have lived with for decades.
It is also a reality that our policy choices have enabled.
Our policies have created systems that don’t support the things we all value: well-being, safe communities, and access to good health care and a sound, basic education for every child. Choices that have been the norm for too long — such as tax cuts for high income people and corporations that force cuts to schools, clean water, and health care — have only served to block Black, brown and poor white people from opportunity.
We can imagine a different way forward in which we make decisions based on two new and fundamental principles.
First is to recognize that we can change the rules of the past; policymakers that cling to the status quo or try and tell us what is not possible or what we can’t afford are not following this principle.
Second is that decisions, first and foremost, must value human dignity and put the greatest priority on the well-being of people, not corporations.
Now is the time to focus our efforts on what we CAN do, not what we’ve done in the past or what we’re afraid to try. We can put policies in place that make sure that people can put food on the table AND a roof over their head AND feel safe and healthy in their community. We can bolster the incomes of working people AND provide the income supports to those who can’t work. We can stop the accumulation of wealth and income at the top AND put our democracy back in the hands of the people.
COVID-19 shows, more than ever, the need for policies that focus on people first:
- The need to drive dollars directly into the pockets of people, particularly those working in low-wage, hourly and contingent work.
- The need to provide access to health care and income supports to every person, regardless of what country they were born in.
- The need to reject the notion that we must be guided by the will of a billionaire class and corporate elites and instead focus on the small farmers, the retail and restaurant owners, and the businesses that employ and serve their neighbors.
This moment should be clarifying, not paralyzing. The need to act on a new set of principles is now. If all of us come together — elected leaders and average North Carolinians —to act boldly, we can put in place the rules for a society that truly acknowledges every person matters and in which we all thrive together.
Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.