Imagine that, as January 2020 began, I had whispered in your ear that a pandemic would soon sweep the planet and, of any country on Earth, the wealthiest and most powerful, the United States of America, would be hit hardest. If I had then told you that there would be by far more cases and more deaths here than in even poor countries, I doubt you'd have believed me. If I had told you then that, over the next year-plus, this country, with all its resources, would botch both the testing and the tracking of the disease, would make a fiercely political nightmare out of taking the most basic steps to prevent its spread, and would turn the purchase and distribution of successful vaccines into a horror story of the first order, you would have thought me mad.
If I had told you that the president of the United States would get a truly bad case of that virus, and on partially recovering and returning to the White House, would promptly step out onto a balcony before the watching eyes of the world, while still infectious, and oh-so-proudly rip off the mask he was wearing in a show of macho who-knows-what, you would have considered me the worst prophet imaginable. What if I had then assured you that the White House itself would become a contagion hot spot for the disease, so much so that both the administration's aging but crucial scientific expert on it and the aging majority leader of the Republican Senate would do their best to avoid going there lest they contract it? What if I had added that, when the vaccines finally did arrive, a significant part of the population would be so vaccinated against the idea of them, including front-line workers, that they would refuse to get the shots? You would have undoubtedly thought me crazy.
Let me repeat that again: we're talking about the wealthiest, most powerful country on Planet Earth. And no, you wouldn't have believed it. You would have thought that I was some kind of a nut. And yes, when Covid-19 arrived on our shores, all of that would indeed turn out to be part of our ongoing history in a country that, as TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon explains today, was only the "wealthiest" country on the planet for its wealthiest citizens. For so many of the rest, it would prove a hell on Earth. Tom
How This Country Fails Its Most Vulnerable
A Field Guide to Our Threadbare Social Safety Net
By Rajan Menon
Economic crises shine a spotlight on a society's inequities and hierarchies, as well as its commitment to support those who are most vulnerable in such grievous moments. The calamity created by Covid-19 is no exception. The economic fallout from that pandemic has tested the nation's social safety net as never before.
Between February and May 2020, the number of unemployed workers soared more than threefold from 6.2 million to 20.5 million. The jobless rate spiked in a similar fashion from 3.8% to 13.0%. In late March, weekly unemployment claims reached 6.9 million, obliterating the previous record of 695,000, set in October 1982. Within three months, the pandemic-produced slump proved far worse than the three-year Great Recession of 2007-2009.
Things have since improved. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced in December that unemployment had fallen to 6.7%. Yet, that same month, weekly unemployment filings still reached a staggering 853,000 and though they fell to just under 800,000 last month, even that far surpassed the 1982 number.
And keep in mind that grim statistics like these can actually obscure, rather than illuminate, the depths of our current misery. After all, they exclude the 6.2 million Americans whose work hours had been slashed in December or the 7.3 million who had simply stopped looking for jobs because they were demoralized, feared being infected by the virus, had schoolchildren at home, or some of the above and more. The BLS's rationale for not counting them is that they are no longer part of what it terms the "active labor force." If they had been included, that jobless rate would have spiraled to nearly 24% in April and 11.6% in December.
Degrees of Pain
To see just how unevenly the economic pain has been distributed in America, however, you have to dig far deeper. A recent analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve did just that by dividing workers into five separate quintiles based on their range of incomes and the occupations typically associated with each.
The first and lowest-paid group, including janitors, cooks, and housecleaners, made less than $35,000 annually; the second (construction workers, security guards, and clerks, among others) earned $35,000-$48,000; the third (including primary- and middle-school teachers, as well as retail and postal workers), $48,000-$60,000; the fourth (including nurses, paralegals, and computer technicians), $60,000-$83,000; while employees in the highest-paid quintile like doctors, lawyers, and financial managers earned a minimum of $84,000.
More than 33% of those in the lowest paid group lost their jobs during the pandemic, and a similar proportion were forced to work fewer hours. By contrast, in the top quintile 5.6% were out of work and 5.4% had their hours cut. For the next highest quintile, the corresponding figures were 11.4% and 11.7%.
Workers in the bottom 20% of national income distribution have been especially vulnerable for another reason. Their median liquid savings (readily available cash) averages less than $600 compared to $31,300 for those in the top 20%.
Twelve percent of working Americans can't even handle a $400 emergency; 27% say they could, but only if they borrowed, used credit cards, or sold their personal possessions.
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