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Everyday Poverty Crises

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Most people would agree that the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 brought many hardships that qualified as a crisis of epic proportion, the worst since the Spanish Flu in 1918. But most Americans overlook how ordinary these hardships are for millions of their poor neighbors. People suffered world-wide. Covid-19 affected many Americans in numerous ways. After all, most Americans were worried about getting deathly ill, not having access to medical care, losing their jobs, not having any sick leave to cover long term expenses, having very little money, and even getting evicted from homes. Moreover, government officials, including the President of the United States—eventually—agreed that it was a national emergency. It was called many things in non-stop news coverage and social media: Crisis, War, Disaster, Hell on Earth, and more. Businesses and most public spaces and gatherings were ordered to be closed until conditions improved. Collegiate and professional sports seasons were cancelled and indefinitely postponed. National Guard troops were patrolling New Rochelle, NY , which had been designated a containment zone, in order to remind residents to stay inside to avoid danger and spreading the virus. Few people objected to these measures because they had been recommended by numerous scientific experts and government officials.

It was a heavy burden for Americans. Troops were mobilized to help feed health care workers and deliver medical supplies that were sorely needed. There were traffic jams throughout the country as people lined up at food banks. After President Trump’s two-month delay in mobilizing a national response, bipartisan approval of a massive intervention and expenditure of billions of dollars, including sending cash to businesses and individual families, was set in motion. Businesses were given billions of dollars in loans that would be forgiven if they kept their employees on the payroll. Federal, state and local guidelines protected people from eviction for up to 90 days, credit scores were protected, and debt collectors were prevented from seizing federal recovery checks sent to individuals. It was truly a national response to a major catastrophe. But very similar circumstances and conditions were all too familiar to millions of poor people, especially minority group members.

Poor people in the United States live a version of this crisis every day. They are largely forgotten. It has been almost 60 years since Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America (1962), documented the ravages of poverty in the United States. His intent was to make poverty more visible. President Lyndon Johnson signed off on the War On Poverty two years later, amidst a poverty rate of 19%. Jump forward by more than a half century, in 2017 the poverty rate was about 14%, or nearly 40 million people. More than 37 million people, including 11 million children, are “food insecure.” Columbia University researchers forecast a large increase in the number of poor people based on a projected unemployment rate of nearly 19% due to the coronavirus. Poor people are diverse. Their numbers are mostly white, but disproportionately black and brown. Many Native Americans live without running water and electricity. Poor people fortunate to have water may still suffer from a lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere. Numerous sociological and government studies document that poor people routinely lack adequate food, housing, heating, sanitation, health care, insurance, and income. They are sick more often, more of their babies die, they have more health problems—heart disease, obesity, hypertension, malnutrition, drug abuse, —and they don’t live as long. Citizens below the poverty line are convicted of more crimes, spend more time in jails and prisons, kill themselves more often, and they kill each other a lot, too. Infant mortality rates among black children are worse than some third world nations, and their mothers die more often during childbirth.

There is a lot of irony here if you think about poor people’s plight in view of the pandemic. An important way to slow down the horrific pandemic was for people to avoid being next to many people, “to shelter in place,” and to stay in their homes as much as possible. But many poor people do not have homes or apartments; many are homeless, living on the streets, in vehicles, and under bridges. And the ones lucky enough to have even a temporary home are evicted routinely at alarming rates. There are more than 550,000 homeless people in the United States; Los Angeles county alone has some 60,000 homeless people. This was troublesome to some well-meaning city mayors and governors, but political and funding stalemates had prevented emergency efforts to provide at least minimal shelter. The pandemic changed that: In cities across the country, emergency housing during the coronavirus pandemic was provided for homeless people in convention centers and auditoriums. The impact of the pandemic on poor people, and especially minority group members is devastating. It is estimated that black people make up 40% of the coronavirus deaths in Pennsylvania, but are only 14% of the population. Black and Latino deaths are twice as likely as white deaths in New York. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio:

“The truth is that in so many ways the negative effects of coronavirus — the pain it’s causing, the death it’s causing — tracks with other profound health care disparities that we have seen for years and decades.”

Testing for the pandemic is in short supply nearly everywhere, but even more so in poor black areas in Los Angeles County, where residents’ misinformation and indifference compounds the problem: “There’s this narrative it’s a rich white man’s disease. They travel. They are the ones who are spreading this disease all around to each other.” Unlike wealthier patients with “concierge doctors,” who have relatively easy access to Covid-19 tests, many black residents lack both health insurance and a primary care provider to recommend testing. Senator Kamala Harris and other officials stated the problem in a letter to Human Services Secretary Alex Azar:

“You still need a provider to write an order for the most part, and I think some people in some communities may have easier access to a provider that is willing to just write that lab order than others,” Ferrer said. “So I do think there is an issue still about who is getting tested and who is not getting tested.”

The consequences of entrenched racism were front and center in major media outlets reflecting on the consequences of Covid-19:

We always knew that the entrenched institutionalized racism in the U.S. had real consequences, but the pandemic underscored that point. Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 in shockingly, disproportionately high numbers. In just one example, black residents account for only 30% of Chicago’s population but 72% of COVID-19  deaths. When the final numbers of sick and dead are tallied, there are going to be some tough discussions about how to address the shameful health disparities that have resulted from generations of unequal access to healthcare, education and income.

Everyday living of poor and minority group members routinely includes many of the conditions that summoned drastic political and economic responses to the pandemic crisis. Their routine is not defined as a national emergency until it is experienced by others in a higher socio- economic category. Their world is not continually presented in prime time as a catastrophe, a war, a crisis, and certainly not a national emergency. Their situations and suffering do not qualify as a national crisis: Thousands of people sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, and children living in cars, children attending special schools set up for homeless kids. It is not enough to be declared a national crisis. The National Guard is not mobilized to patrol Chicago neighborhoods when hundreds are shot dead outside their homes. Nor do minority group homicides warrant calling for a national moratorium on the gun pandemic in the United States. Horrific school shootings get our attention, but the carnage pales in comparison to the more than 3,000 black youth shot dead every year, and Black Americans homicide rate is eight times that of whites.

Politicians and others declare that all people matter and that we are “all in this together” during an officially recognized crisis like the 2020 pandemic. This includes homeless people, who suddenly are being offered shelter. And some officials even had concern for prison and jail inmates, as well as prison workers, whose lack of physical spacing could have predicted the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Many people agreed that several categories of inmates should be released, including those with less than 60 days to serve, nonviolent offenders, persons held who could not post bail, and others. Criminologists and other scholars have long suggested that many of those incarcerated, including a disproportionate number of minority group men and women, could be effectively sanctioned in other ways. Some major newspapers joined the call to release inmates, including The Los Angeles Times editorial board:

This pandemic has also spotlighted weaknesses in the criminal justice system. Efforts are underway to try to release people from our sinfully overcrowded jails and prisons, particularly those who could not afford bail, and people convicted of crimes that did not involve violence. Their exposure now to a potentially deadly virus raises the question of what purpose their incarceration served in the first place. (My emphasis)

Crises deserve our attention, but the first challenge is to direct that attention to the routine challenges and injustice of everyday life. Hopefully, the ameliorative steps to contain the lethal Covid-19 pandemic will not totally disappear when the deadly virus becomes a cruel memory. Hopefully, the lesson will be learned that when some of us are vulnerable and suffering, all are at risk. Hopefully, poverty, racism, and injustice will reappear on the national agenda in order to combat the routine crises faced by poor people in the United States. Decency expects this, public health demands it.

The sociology of poverty is at once an empirical and a normative project. The challenge of studying the origins of a multidimensional poverty in relations of exploitation, discrimination, or statecraft are formidable. But more than this, conceptualizing poverty as multidimensional and relational is fraught with moral urgency. For America’s poor, the conditions of life are indecent and people live with something less than their full humanity, blunted from realizing their utmost potential.

Poverty that is harsh, degrading, and indecent offends dignity. Unnecessary poverty, on the backs of the powerless and to the benefit of the powerful, is unjust. Research need not shrink from that honest judgment (Desmond & Western, 2018).

Reference

Desmond, M., & Western, B. (2018). Poverty in America: New Directions and Debates. Annual Review of Sociology, 44(1), 305-318. Retrieved from https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-soc-060116-053411. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-060116-053411

 

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

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