“I work at the California Academy of Sciences. I was furloughed in April, then laid off. The museum reopened, then closed again. Now I am out of work, again. I lose my health insurance in February and have to reapply for unemployment. I have no idea how much I will get, when I will get it, or how long it will last.” Kristina Lee of San Francisco summed up the plight of many as the economy bottoms out.
The current recession, kicked off by the Covid-19 epidemic, has hit those with the fewest resources hardest. These are the same folks who took it on the chin in the 2001 and 2009 recessions. These are the people that the U.S. Congress would not give $2,000 for survival in December.
No food, no home, no job. Black women and other women of color in particular have been pushed to the brink. The non-profit group Feeding America stated in 2019 that 21 of the 25 counties nationwide with the highest rates of hunger were predominately people of color. The other four counties — with white majorities — were all in rural Kentucky.
Hunger in the U.S. often affects children. Before the recession hit, 25% of the children in Black households didn’t have enough to eat. This despite the fact that half of these households included full time workers. As of October 2020, hunger in children increased 52% over the pre-pandemic monthly average. And 60% of low-income students start each day hungry.
Relief is desperately needed. In May 2020, Congress authorized $4 billion to buy surplus farm products for food banks and other distribution centers. This was supposed to provide food to get people through the pandemic. It didn’t. Supplies ran out in the fall.
While the stimulus bill passed in late December does allocate $1.4 billion for food, it is not nearly enough. Before the pandemic 40 million people lacked enough to eat. Since the first lockdown that number has skyrocketed forcing many food banks to cut rations.
Housing for many is as precarious as food is. The end-of-the-year stimulus package had $25 billion for rent relief. But it is a fraction of what is needed. The Low-Income Housing Institute said at least $100 billion was needed to keep tenants from owing unpayable back rent.
And the U.S. housing crisis is about to get worse. The national eviction moratorium expires on January 31. It was a good effort, but only covered about 1/3 of all renters. In some areas landlords never stopped filing eviction notices and county officials kept throwing people out of their homes. Two-thirds of the filings occur in predominantly Black and brown communities.
Without relief from paying back rent, and an extended eviction moratorium, working class renters, particularly women of color and women with children, face a tsunami of evictions beginning in February.
To round out this trifecta of woe is massive job loss. The federal government puts the unemployment rate at 6.7%. The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, says the U.S. figure is closer to 15% and they believe that number is likely too low.
The disparity is because the federal government does not count people who drop out of the workforce, do not qualify or are ineligible for unemployment checks, or can’t work due to pandemic safety concerns or childcare needs because schools are closed. It does, however, classify people as employed if they work half time or less. Worse, people who are furloughed due to the lockdown count as employed.
Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants are not counted, and virtually ignored. They are denied federally subsidized benefits like welfare, housing assistance, and unemployment benefits. If they can’t work, there is virtually no federal safety net.
A time to organize. Some neighborhoods, unions, and movements have stepped in to help homeowners, renters and people who need it. In Portland, Oregon, neighbors recently stopped a bank from evicting a Black family. This family was one of the few remaining Black households in what was once a historically Black neighborhood in northeast Portland. Protesters occupied the property and generated so much bad press that the bank backed off.
In Orlando, Florida, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 1652, partnered with a local non-profit to distribute food to workers laid off from Disney World. When the fund ran out of money in October, the union paid for emergency food to distribute.
Historically, when the going gets tough, workers do too. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, leftists in unions and the unemployed organized general strikes, plant takeovers and boycotts.
They mobilized entire communities and inspired others. These efforts led to the implementation of Social Security, jobs programs and relief for the poor along with the recognition of the right to unionize.
Unfortunately, today’s union leadership see pro-capitalist Democratic Party candidates like Joe Biden as the answer to labor’s problems. This belief persists despite endless betrayals by Democrats of working people. Instead, labor must spend resources on defending their members’ lives and livelihoods.
Leftists and other radicals in unions should take a page from the past and collaborate to demand that organized labor defend the entire working class by fighting the assaults on all working people — particularly those paid the least with the least secure and most dangerous jobs.
Unions could demand full employment through massive jobs programs funded by heavily taxing pandemic super-profiters; a permanent eviction ban; free, nutritious, quality food aid as needed; and much more (see A Robin Hood program for working class survival).
The government heaps more scorn than help on working people. Community groups and workers need to rely on each other. They need to come together to push back against a for-profit system that leaves the 99% out in the cold.