Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”:
“The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent.”
King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions — words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.
In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn’t just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. “If America does not address what’s happening with visionary social and economic policy,” as that study put it, “the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below.”
Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we’re being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.
Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a “compromise” relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.
At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.
A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use.
A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a “people’s vaccine.”)
Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there’s a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it’s taken this long.
The Covid-19 vaccine experience does show one thing, however — what can be done when the resources of this country are marshalled to immediately address a crisis-level issue. Imagine if the same approach were taken when it came to systemic racism, climate change, or the poverty that has only deepened in the midst of the pandemic crisis. Indeed, if the political will were there, Americans could clearly tackle massive problems like hunger and homelessness no less effectively than developing a vaccine, instead of spending millions of dollars on cruel attempts to drive the homeless away by redesigning park benches and other urban architecture to repel those with nowhere to stay. After all, in cities like San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, there are more vacant houses than there are homeless people.
Although the politics of austerity generally reign supreme on both sides of the aisle in Congress (especially when it comes to antipoverty programs like welfare), it’s also true that public spending is regularly and abundantly martialed to solve issues that affect certain parts of society — namely, the private sector and the military. From subsidies to major companies like big agriculture to critical R&D expenditures for Silicon Valley to public university research that benefits private industry, funding from the state is often the invisible backbone of American business operations and advances. Likewise, spending on the military makes up more than half of the federal discretionary budget, funding everything from the 800 American military bases that circle the planet to expensive and risky new technologies and war machines.
Lessons from the Pandemic
Back in March, the writer Arundhati Roy spoke of the pandemic as “a portal.” She was perhaps suggesting that the widespread suffering caused by Covid-19 could open a doorway into a future in which we humans might begin to treat ourselves and the planet with greater devotion. In another sense, however, the pandemic has also been a portal into our past, a way of showing us the conditions that have laid the groundwork not just for the devastation that now consumes us but for possibly far worse to come.
No one could have expected this exact crisis at this exact moment in exactly this way. Yet, before Covid-19, society was already teetering under the weight of poverty and inequality, and a sober look at history offers clues as to why the United States now has the highest Covid-19 case tally and death toll in the world. Too many have died because our country’s preexisting conditions of systemic injustice have gone untreated for so long and those in power never seem to learn the applicable lesson of this moment: pandemics spread along the fissures of society, both exposing them more and deepening them further.
Before Covid-19, there were already 140 million people in this country who were poor or a $400 emergency — one job loss, accident, illness, or storm — away from poverty. Across America that meant close to 80 million people were uninsured or underinsured, 60 million people had zero (zero!) wealth other than the value of a family car, more than a million people were defaulting on federal student loans annually, and more than 62 million workers were making less than $15 an hour, with more than two million in Florida alone making only $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage. And that’s just to begin down a nightmarish list.
For Pamela Sue Rush and about 1.5 million other people, it meant a lack of access to piped water and sewage systems. Before Pamela, who is Black, contracted Covid-19 and died in July, she lived in a mobile home in Lowndes County, Alabama, where human waste festered in her backyard because she didn’t have proper plumbing, and in a state that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid, and in a country that has no federal guarantee of either healthcare or clean water. Covid-19 may have been the immediate cause of her death, but the underlying one was racism and poverty.
During these pandemic months, a popular notion has been that the virus is a great equalizer because everyone is susceptible. Yet the human and economic toll has been anything but equal across society. It will take more time to find out just what the mortality rate among the poor has been, but it’s already clear that those of us with compromised immune systems, disproportionately poor and people of color, are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus, and early reports suggest that poorer counties have higher death rates. An unsurprising but alarming new study found that more than 400,000 Covid-19 cases are associated with the lifting of eviction moratoriums, forcing people out of the safety of their homes; such numbers will only worsen this winter as evictions continue, if such moratoriums aren’t extended into the new year.
Beyond the toll of the virus itself, the economic fallout has been devastating for the poor. Between six and eight million people have fallen below the federal poverty line since March (although that measure is an old and broken standard). The true numbers are undoubtedly far higher. The last 38 weeks have seen unemployment claims greater than the worst week of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Some economists are now talking about a possible quick bounce back once the virus is controlled and yet the long-term damage is only beginning to reveal itself. After all, 10 years after the Great Recession, a time when little in the way of long-term relief was provided, the majority of workers had still not recovered from it. That this crisis is already significantly deeper and wider should give us pause as we consider what the next decade will look like if this country doesn’t alter its bleak course.
The fissures in our society were vast before Covid-19 hit and they’ve only broadened. A vaccine will address the most visible of them, but we as a nation will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis until we learn the most important lesson this moment can teach: that our yet-to-be-United States will only heal as a society when every person’s needs are met. In a pandemic, one person without food, water, healthcare, or housing puts everyone at risk. The same is, in fact, true in non-pandemic times, for a society riven by poverty and deprivation will always be unstable and vulnerable.
Martin Luther King once told a crowd in St. Louis that “we must learn to live as brothers or perish together as fools.” Today, the balance is tipping perilously toward the latter category, as Congress painfully debates a thoroughly anemic relief bill that promises little for most Americans and sets a dangerous precedent for the coming months. In a recent letter to Joe Manchin, the self-proclaimed “centrist” senator from West Virginia, Reverend William Barber II (my co-chair on the Poor People’s Campaign) wrote:
“I am ashamed of this nation. I know you want to do the right thing, and Republicans are tying your hands, but please don’t call this a ‘centrist plan.’ It’s more cynical than centrist. It’s damn near criminal that millions are hurting, billionaires are getting richer, sick people are dying, poverty is expanding, and the Senate can’t do the right thing.”
Indeed, the most important things to note in the coming stimulus bill are these: it protects corporations (that have not protected their workers) from any accountability or legal responsibility; it continues to bail out the rich, not the rest of us, with no provisions for stimulus checks and insufficient funding to states and municipalities; it lowers unemployment benefits to $300 per week (based on wages of $7.50 an hour) rather than $600 per week (based on $15 an hour); it is not only significantly less than the nation needs, but less than what was on offer months ago. The cynicism of this relief bill lies in the way it diminishes life for political gain and corporate profit and in the false contention that this is the most that’s available to us, the best the nation can do.
The Ghosts of Christmas Present
Call it a cruel stroke of history that Congress should be deliberating on the welfare of millions only a few weeks before Christmas, especially since so many of the key players call themselves “Christians.” This holiday season and the winter beyond it promise to be a long, dark portal to who knows where, as temperatures drop, Covid-19 cases continue to rise, and poverty and homelessness are transformed into so many more death certificates. The timing of Congress’s new “relief” bill is particularly wicked if, as a Christian, you were to remember the details of Jesus’s birth in that manger in Bethlehem.
After all, he was born a homeless refugee to an unmarried teenage mother and had to flee to Egypt with his family as a baby because the ruling authorities already deemed that this poor Palestinian Jewish boy would grow up to be a threat to the established order of injustice. But the powers and principalities of his day were never the only ones who mattered. There were always those who recognized in his birth that, to right the wrongs of society, to protect the lives of countless innocent victims, another way was possible, if society started with the poor and marginalized, not with those already full to the brim.
It’s too bad that some of the congressional representatives who call themselves Christian are so unwilling to take a moment to consider the homeless revolutionary who was long ago sent to lead a moral movement from below. They should remember that the story of Christmas celebrates the birth of a poor, brown-skinned leader who, in the Gospel of Luke, is born to “scatter those who are proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, but lift up the humble. He fills the hungry with good things but sends the rich away empty.”
In a time when more children are on the brink of being born into poverty, homelessness, and state-sanctioned violence, rather than, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths” of the wealthy and corporations, Americans would do well to recognize that scarcity could vanish and that it’s time to address systemic inequality.
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.