Coronavirus, Poverty, and Structural Violence

As a nation, obviously, there are so many things we can do better. There always will be. Yet, what the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made all too apparent is how we have not appropriately dealt with poverty in the United States. This is not just about the Trump Administration, it is about all past presidential administrations and past congressional sessions which have largely ignored the issue in favor of corporate concerns, or more lucrative economic programs, and/or private interests. At times, poverty has been on the governmental agenda, and at times, some legislation has been passed. But in all honesty, why has poverty not been a more major issue to tackle?

Way back in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted legislation, which became known as a “War on Poverty”. In reality, Johnson’s vision was a continuation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Johnson’s policies were effective with the “Economic Opportunity Act” (1964), “Food Stamp Act” (1964), “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (1965), and “Social Security Act” (1965, initiation of Medicare and Medicaid). Poverty decreased and people’s lives improved from this legislation. We can also thank the “Civil Rights Movement” and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for pushing President Johnson to do something. Also, highly influential was Michael Harrington’s seminal book, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962).

Even so, here we are today. As New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently stated: “It always seems that the poorest people pay the highest price. Why is that? Why is that? Whatever the situation is. With the natural disaster Hurricane Katrina, the people standing on those rooftops were not rich white people. Why? Why is it the poorest people always pay the highest price?” These are crucial questions and they need to be asked. It is indeed unfortunate that it takes a pandemic to ask them and to underline the issues of health disparities and issues surrounding poverty in general in the United States.

The renowned French sociological-theorist, Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), explained social forms of domination, such as poverty, as “symbolic violence”. Other researchers, like anthropologist, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, expanded the understanding in her classic monograph, Death Without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (1992), with an interpretation of “structural violence” whereby populations, such as the impoverished people she studied in Northeast Brazil, experienced everyday “routines of humiliation and violence”. In turn, I elaborated on these theorists to understand racism against Mayan refugees and their experiences of “discrimination, prejudice, racism, stereotyping, and labelling” in my article, “Mayan Cognition, Memory, and Trauma” (2009).

Similarly, if we examine issues of “structural violence” in association with the Coronavirus (COVID-19), we find ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, are more susceptible to illnesses and pandemics because of numerous socioeconomic factors. As neurologist and primatologist, Robert Sapolsky discusses in his acclaimed book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (1994), how measuring the correlation between poverty and health is not simply just about the “socioeconomic status (SES) gradient” but about “feeling poor”. As Sapolsky asserts: “Cardiovascular measures, metabolism measures, glucocorticoid levels, obesity in kids. Feeling poor in our socioeconomic world predicts poor health…subjective SES is built around education, income, and occupational position (in other words, the building blocks of subjective SES), plus satisfaction with standard of living and feeling of financial security about the future.”

Given that in general African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are more likely to have lesser education and lower incomes than whites in the United States, also predicts some of the factors for structural violence in American society against these minorities. Equally, another factor, which is “gender inequality”, compounds the problems associated with health in our society. As the editors Amy Schulz and Leith Mullings (2006) argue in their book, Gender, Race, Class & Health: Intersectional Approaches: “…The malleability of race, gender, and class as socially constructed categories as well as the obdurate nature of inequalities structured around these concepts in the United States” are thus central to understanding why “structural violence” persists and why the correlation to poverty and health are still present in American society.

In statistical terms, it is remarkable just how many socioeconomic disparities exist in the United States compared with other “First World” and developed nations, especially since we are the wealthiest. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the United States has no national policy for paid sick leave and “zero” paid sick days leave for cancer treatment or influenza recovery, whereas Luxembourg and Norway have 50 for cancer and 5 for the flu.

Moreover, among African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans their health risks are more notable. The National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) and the NAACP, estimate approximately 40% of “7.3 million Black workers” are unable to earn even a single paid sick day. And, because of this, African-Americans are more often than not forced to choose “between their health and the health of their families and their economic security” if they fall ill, or have to care for an ill family member. The statistics are very similar for Hispanic-Americans. While Latinos represent the largest labor-force among ethnic minorities within the United States, approximately 15 million, like African-Americans, are more than likely not able to earn any paid sick days according to UnidosUS and NPWF.

Of course, health disparities should include the most marginalized in our society, namely, the homeless and the imprisoned populations. According to the “National Coalition for the Homeless”: “Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education.” In a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), on any given night as many as about 550,000 people experienced homelessness in 2016 in America. Homeless populations in general are likely to have pre-existing conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus as well. Therefore, the need among the homeless is great, which means “providing food, sanitary devices and stations, port-a-potties and shower trucks to keep homeless individuals safe” are paramount for disease prevention.

Furthermore, jails and prisons are exceptionally susceptible to a pandemic like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and are like “petri dishes” because inmates are trapped with nowhere to go and where social distancing is altogether impossible. According to a recent New York Times article: “America has more people behind bars than any other nation. Its correctional facilities are frequently crowded and unsanitary, filled with an aging population of often impoverished people with a history of poor health care, many of whom suffer from respiratory problems and heart conditions.”

Additionally, there are many complications for considering early release programs both at the federal and state levels. Let alone the prison employees who have likewise contracted the disease. In all, there are about 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States and so far both prison staff and inmates in the states of Florida, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington have tested positive for COVID-19. The “Prison Policy Initiative” elaborates on five reasons how the criminal justice system might lessen the pandemic: 1) reduce numbers in local jails; 2) reduce numbers of inmates in federal and state prisons; 3) eliminate face-to-face meetings with people in the criminal justice system; 4) make correctional healthcare more humane; 5) allow families of inmates freer communication access.

And finally, according to the Urban Institute, many poor people live in overcrowded housing, making social distancing impracticable and unmanageable and likewise negatively affecting educational outcomes for children. Moreover, the average African-American household incomes are $40,165 in comparison to $65,845 for white households and in keeping with statistics from the U.S. Census and the Office of Minority Health (OMH). While African-Americans also have lower life expectancies. Whereas Hispanics have the highest uninsured-rates of any ethnic group within the United States and in keeping with OMH statistics 19.4% of Hispanics in comparison to 9.6% of whites were living in poverty.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union speech in 1964, he remarked: “It will not be a short or easy struggle. No single weapon will suffice. But we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” Those astounding words spoken by President Johnson 56 years ago should also resound with us today with as much urgency as they did then, and maybe even more so with the growing economic crisis.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).