A Pandemic-Driven New Deal for America’s Working Families

We can’t patch our way out of catastrophe, so let’s build a true social safety net.

By Esta Soler

History shows that periods of desperation also force opportunities to do good. The Great Depression yielded the New Deal, including Social Security and other measures to deliver relief to a suffering population.

But it didn’t go far enough.

The New Deal’s relief measures left untouched racist policies in hiring, housing, labor, banking and farming that left African-Americans, in particular, even more deeply disenfranchised than they had been before.

What will be the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We can learn from history, and not only correct deep social failings, but also drive lasting progress — that is, if we recognize the opportunities this crisis forces upon us.

As we navigate the collective trauma brought on by disease, death, a healthcare system on the brink, job loss, economic havoc, the disruption of our most basic daily routines and expectations, along with all the anxiety, fear, uncertainty and pain that comes with it, the answer to this question tells us who we are as a society — and who we aspire to be.

My decades of work in social justice and violence prevention convince me that we can remedy the gaping injustices the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare, reducing not only today’s suffering, but also building a more equitable society that will be less vulnerable to a future catastrophe of this scope.

The pandemic painfully reveals the consequences of a social safety net that is more hole than thread for millions upon millions of working families — a healthcare “system” based on providing reimbursement to those fortunate enough to have employer-based coverage, rather than prevention and treatment to all; a gig economy with millions who work without health or other benefits; staggering inequities that compel low-wage workers, particularly women and women of color, to do first, second and even third jobs, preventing them from being the parents they want to be; and in crisis, closed schools that create a cascade of hardship for vulnerable families, depriving children also of nutritious meals and basic healthcare.

During the Great Depression, it took four years to construct the New Deal through a series of Congressional and executive actions.

A few weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, with lifesaving, protecting public health and preserving basic economic functions at the forefront, our deeper policy response has barely begun. We must incorporate the less-noted learnings of the New Deal into our broader pandemic response — and ensure that vulnerable communities are treated equitably.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted that even the three stimulus packages passed by Congress, including the $2 trillion CARES Act, the largest such measure in U.S. history, cannot replace the deep repair work needed to prevent a repeat disaster for America’s most vulnerable workers and families.

It is a cruel reality that many of those holding up the lifeline in this crisis, caring for patients, seniors, the disabled, the children of essential workers; cleaning our buildings, picking our food, cooking it, stocking our shelves, delivering takeout meals and packages, go to work even in the best of times without health insurance, paid sick or family leave, access to quality, affordable childcare, basic occupational safeguards, or retirement benefits.

This pandemic forces us — and the leaders we elect — to face the collective consequences of living in the only country in the industrialized world without these basic workplace protections.

This is the opportunity we must seize in this crisis. Whether policymakers are motivated by compassion, decency, a sense of justice, fiscal prudence — or some combination of these factors — a new deal for America’s working families makes smart public policy sense.

At the same time, we also need to recognize that vulnerable families, especially women and children experiencing violence, have additional needs.

Speaker Pelosi has been diligent in ensuring that relief measures taken so far directly address the needs of survivors of domestic and sexual violence who are exposed to additional risks while confined at home, in many cases with their abusers. Survivors still need services, counseling, courts, medical attention, and even relocation assistance during this public health crisis.

Domestic Violence and sexual abuse hotline counselors, are on the front lines for them, just as doctors and nurses are for us, as are providers of emergency housing, and child support services.

History shows that during times of disaster and crisis, the risks to DV survivors and incidents of domestic violence and child abuse increase. We are starting to pick up ominous indications that this crisis is following the pattern. And vulnerable families are facing additional stress brought on by reduced or lost wages, difficulties accessing free or reduced cost school meals, mental health counseling, and emergency housing services.

As we combat the COVID-19 virus, we must also flatten this concurrent curve of violence and abuse with every tool in our arsenal, and at the same time, build a stronger infrastructure for survivors, and for everyone.

The health, social and economic perils of this moment are immense; so too is the opportunity to go beyond emergency, stopgap measures, and instead create a new deal for working families that is fair, equitable and true to the American spirit of community.

Here are some additional steps we must take:

  1. Enact universal healthcare coverage
  2. Universal child care from birth to school age, and schools that are hubs for learning, social-emotional health, and nutritious meals.
  3. The enactment of a true living wage that allows workers to support a family without having to work several jobs pieced together; the ability to afford safe and decent housing, as well as workplace protections, including paid sick and family leave, unemployment and disability insurance, and basic occupational safeguards.

For all the pain, loss, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and expense of this moment, we can emerge from our current ordeal as a more equitable, more stable, less violent, and healthier society in every sense of the word.

Esta Soler is founder and president of Futures Without Violence, an international social justice and advocacy organization to prevent violence and to help survivors and communities heal.

We work to prevent and end violence against women, children, and families throughout the world. Join us at www.futureswithoutviolence.org

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