A COVID-19 Economy: I’m Not Worried About the 1%. I’m Terrified for the Bottom 50%.

As I write this, I am eating lunch in my New York City office, near the Flatiron building in Manhattan.  A lot of people have offices in this neighborhood, like FanDuel and Credit Suisse. As I often do as part of my regular office day, I went to a branch of Dig Inn that normally has over a dozen workers making lunches assembly line style. Two cashiers can check out about ten people per minute at the peak of the lunch time rush.

Today, there were less than half the usual number of workers, and those who were there weren’t doing very much. Instead of a crowd of people waiting for their food, there was one person at the counter when I came in. I actually had to stand there with my lunch in my hand while I brought up the app to pay, which has never happened before.

I’m not worried about all the bond traders and software engineers who are making their own lunch at home right now instead of at Dig Inn.  They will probably make as much money as usual, and if not, those people who made a lot of money in the good years should have some left now. They, above all others right now in the middle of this unprecedented outbreak and economic crisis, will be fine.

Instead, I am worried about all of the people who are usually standing behind the counter asking me what vegetables I want with my tofu, and putting carrots or broccoli or whatever into my bowl. I am worried about the people who clean this restaurant, who prepare the food in the back, who deliver the food to staff here every day. 

I am worried about the millions of Americans in millions of restaurants and bars and retail shops like this one living paycheck-to-paycheck, facing the potential of cut hours, full closures, no sick leave, no benefits, and no outside income to cushion them through this disaster whatsoever. That is the reality of over half our country.

If these people – millions and millions of us – are not working, are they going to be paying their cell phone bills?  Their credit card bills? Are they going to be bringing their kids to music class? Are they going to be able to pay for even the most basic necessities like groceries or rent?

I’m not too worried about their landlords: Trump knows all about landlords and will push for some relief for them, but a lot of people in all of the cities across our country – not just New York – not commuting to their offices means that there will be a lot more people not making any money, and the ripple effect is going to mean that all of us, even the wealthy, will have less income this year.

That is what I am really worried about.  I could get the disease, but I probably won’t, and even if I do I will probably be fine a few weeks later.  But if half the restaurant workers in New York, and half the dry cleaner workers, and half of the car service drivers, and half of the janitors and schoolteachers and construction workers and god knows who else, aren’t able to pay their bills for three or four months, that means that a lot of other people who work at a lot of other businesses are going to be out of work too, which will make the problem spiral even more.

The response we are seeing from the federal government to rescue the economy is frankly completely insufficient. The proposals coming out of the White House and bills out of Congress are horrifying in their abject failure to prioritize the needs of the low-income workers that comprise half of our entire country. 

As cities like New York shutter bars and restaurants to slow the spread of the virus, they have no plan in place to provide workers with enough income to allow them to stay home and avoid spreading it. The federal government’s Coronavirus relief bill, which isn’t even slated to be considered in the Senate until later this week while the virus spreads unabated, exempts 80% of American companies from paying sick leave for their workers. 

If we are not thinking about these millions of people, we are not just denying our own humanity; we are patently refusing to understand the scale of this crisis and what needs to be done to contain it. If we do not provide relief for the most vulnerable group that happens to make up half our entire nation, we run the massive risk of allowing the virus to spread and tanking our entirely consumer-dependent economy even further.

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