Op-Ed: We Say We’re All in This Together, Yet We’re Not an Equitable Society

‘The pandemic already painfully shows the deep inequalities of an every-household-for-itself response that disproportionately exposes, infects and kills the economically unprotected’
Credit: Rutgers University
David Dante Troutt

From the rigid confines of a jail cell, Rev. Martin Luther King wrote that our fates are interconnected. “All life is interrelated,” he began. “Somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” From our own locked-down vantage of forced quarantine, King’s words ring true.

Yet sheltered in place, we’re still in the early shock of viral interdependence, far from knowing just what kind of mutuality the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately reveal. We say we’re all in this together, a statement of mutuality that suggests an equity of necessity, like the social contract — sacrificing to the whole for individual benefits. Because a single farmworker, store clerk, lawyer, visitor or even nurse can alter dozens of lives forever, lockdown might be the first act of collective mutuality among a people experiencing what King called “the interrelated structure of reality.”

Yet we’re not an equitable society, and the pandemic already painfully shows the deep inequalities of an every-household-for-itself response that disproportionately exposes, infects and kills the bodies of the economically unprotected, especially black, Latino and tribal peoples. Right now, mutuality still looks awfully lopsided. Government has failed in its first duty to protect.

Like the irony of Rev. King, a black American embracing mutuality while imprisoned for championing human rights for all Americans, painful ironies will accumulate during the coming recession. People with the least will suffer the most. The most vulnerable will support the most resourceful.

This is the fatal flaw in how modern American society structures mutuality — or, for that matter, equality. It defaults to the conditions of the most resources rather than the least, as if what we provide for the neediest of us doesn’t also help those with the most. We see this in the slow pace of federal so-called paycheck protection as well as the “accidental” preference for big businesses over small ones in the CARES Act. Addressing the concerns of people of color and those who must work with the public is usually an afterthought until the interests of more affluent people are secured. A global pandemic-recession shows how backward this is.

Consider our future six months from now

So, using a crystal ball, consider two futures six months from now — one from the usual top down and the other through an equitable lens in which mutuality affects all according to need. Assume that fear and a lack of testing will compel most of us to stay home for months, avoid large venues, including restaurants, malls and office workplaces, no matter what Donald Trump hopes will happen. Until there’s a reliable, universally available vaccine, it will be a long time before many of us chance elevators, mass transit or distant vacations. The wage-earning unemployed will grow by millions, their employers cutting back or going bankrupt. Public sector job cuts will hurt workers and residents. Places with low tax bases will lose the most.

In the typical American future, housing affordability will tighten and housing conditions worsen as landlords who lost rents discriminate in favor of renters who can help them cover property costs. Dwindling public tax revenues will decrease subsidies for affordable housing construction. Moves to less dense living will favor people with means.

In education, achievement gaps will permanently widen and accumulate, particularly in low-performing districts with disproportionate rates of kids classified for special education or without adequate distance-learning capacity or even instruction. These children are often black and brown.

Public transportation will suffer service declines as anyone who can afford to own and insure a car will drive one. All poor people — whose lives are far more entangled with public agencies — will see declining social services.

From housing opportunity to jobs, the pandemic-fueled recession will favor the advantaged and devastate the health, education and economic welfare of millions of people “caught out there.”

Lopsided as it is, this will be a multitrillion-dollar future that we all have to pay for — like the generations following World War II paid for that effort. The difference today is more inequality and less trust. Mutuality relies on trust. People expected to sacrifice for the whole have to trust that burdens will be shared. Why would poorer and working-class people trust that this crisis will produce a mutuality of solutions on equitable terms when crises never do?

It almost certainly won’t, which is why we should envision recovery plans with their interests first, not last. What might that alternative future look like?

If we put people with lesser means first…

For starters, focus increased testing and contact tracing among public-facing essential workers and their families. As in South Korea, their homes should be disinfected at public expense. When a vaccine arrives, they get it first.

A more equitable mutuality teaches that securing basic needs like shelter, education, jobs and health requires seeing them as fundamental human rights supported and regulated by a larger governmental role — as most of the industrialized West already does.

In housing, we should first protect the health of tenants in public housing, who often reside in dangerous densities at high risk of eviction by government landlords — practices that must end, in part by ensuring a right to free legal representation. As we did after World War II, we should reconsider the expansion of public housing schemes to increase affordability and rent regulation to stabilize housing costs. More renters should qualify for assistance, decreasing the public costs of homelessness.

Housing opportunity is also about location. We need a regional system of fair-share affordable housing obligations incentivized by the federal government that rewards states for distributing housing opportunity across every municipality and repealing exclusionary zoning roadblocks like single-family zones. Tax abatement criteria should be revised at every level of government to demonstrably promote more affordable units rather than merely vague promises of jobs. More equitable public finance helps all taxpayers.

In education, end the digital divide within a year by making sure that all students have the hardware and bandwidth they need for remote learning and proven modes of instruction. Connect the fates of segregated schools and districts by viewing their performance regionally, not individually, and condition federal funding on meeting clear goals for closing achievement gaps. The same household technology that improves home instruction will expand work-from-home options.

The argument for universal health care

In social services, the all-day wait to see a benefits administrator may now be a death sentence just as filing for unemployment has become a soul killer. The private sector can rescue the public with streamlined services that can be conducted in a timely manner from a proper social distance — a smartphone.

Finally, in employment and health care, it’s clear that a higher minimum wage pegged to a regionally determined living wage standard rewards the dignity of work while keeping people out of poverty. Often this will mean repealing indefensible rules protecting independent contractor status for “gig” workers so they can be employees. Employees should get health benefits, including paid sick leave. And if the pandemic demonstrates anything about mutuality, it’s that we’re only all in this together if health care is universal.

This alternative future should reflect our mutual interests rather than reinforce the structure of inequality. Reforms that begin with those hardest hit quickly benefit us all. The opposite is not true. In time, we’ll recapture our lost celebrations and recoup much of what we’ve lost. Most importantly, we’ll grow into a society that used a pandemic and a recession to become healthier and more equal for generations to come.