By William J. Barber II and Joe Kennedy III
April 27, 2020 at 12:22 p.m. EDT
The Rev. William J. Barber II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’s 4th District in the U.S. House.
A month ago, they were called “service workers”: the people who prepare our food, deliver our packages, drive our buses, clean our offices and staff our nursing homes. Then, the coronavirus changed this country’s collective vocabulary. Now, these people are “essential workers.” They may not be paid a livable wage or have access to dependable health care. They may even be forced onto public assistance.
And the rest of us cannot survive without them.
It is heartening to see our language accurately reflect the dignity of this work. Covid-19 forced low-wage workers who do not have the luxury or liberty of staying home to put their lives on the line for the rest of us. Their sacrifice and their service are a moral calling for all of us: It is past time for federal policy to acknowledge what is unequivocally essential for any man, woman or child to survive.
Food is essential. In the richest nation on Earth, nearly 40 million people are considered food insecure. And that was before this crisis. Depending on which definition of the term you use, between 17 million and 54 million Americans live in food deserts. Millions of immigrants are denied basic nutrition because they do not qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Moms and children lucky enough to be covered by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) now must search for vital items in picked-over grocery stores. The existing injustice of the U.S. food ecosystem has been compounded by this crisis to devastating effect.
Shelter is essential. Popular culture is filled with graphics and hashtags telling Americans to stay home. What if you don’t have one? On any given night, half a million Americans sleep on the streets. Another 3 million live in shelters at some point each year. And there is not a county in the country where someone earning minimum wage can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. We need a nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures immediately, and looking forward, we need to reconfigure the policies that have kept so much housing unaffordable.
Health care is essential. Never have the inadequacies of our health-care system been more visible. Early on, experts called this disease an equalizer. Now we know it is anything but. The people contracting and dying from this disease are disproportionately poor and black and brown. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs, and with those jobs, their health insurance; tying coverage to employment has always been foolish, but in a pandemic that requires us to shut down our economy in response, it is madness. We need Medicare-for-all.
Financial security is essential. Before this crisis, roughly 140 million Americans were poor or low-income, struggling to get by month to month. The $1,200 stimulus checks couldn’t arrive soon enough for these families. Many Americans have continued going to work because they have to. We need hazard pay for these essential workers. We need a living wage for all. We need guaranteed sick days, paid family leave, universal child care and public transit worthy of the most powerful country in the developed world.
Clean air and clean water are essential. As a respiratory illness tears through our communities, some people are shocked that it is having a disparate impact on communities of color. But you know who isn’t the least bit surprised? The 68 percent of black Americans living within 30 miles of a coal plant and those in the low-income communities where extreme heat increases the risk of asthma and heart disease. Communities of color and low-income workers were battling a natural disaster, often without help from their governments, long before covid-19 arrived. We need to confront climate change with policies that put those communities at the forefront of our efforts.
Belonging is essential. While a one-time relief check from the federal government is good news to tens of millions of Americans, we know that 11 million of our undocumented neighbors will not receive anything from the federal aid that has been allocated thus far. Many are agricultural and construction workers, deemed essential, who have paid taxes in the United States for decades. But still we shamelessly exploit their labor. We need justice for immigrant workers, families and communities.
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The objections to these essential policies are well-known. Some say they cost too much. But the trillions of dollars we have found to shore up Wall Street and financial markets are evidence that our government has capacity to invest in the things we consider essential.
Others say they cannot be pursued because Republicans in the Senate and the White House will block them. But Americans who may have to risk their lives to go to the polls this fall deserve to know who is willing to pursue these essential policies and who is not.
If these workers are essential, then their lives are, too. Their humanity is, too. If there is anything covid-19 has revealed, it is how deeply our fates are tied. The task before us is enormous, but we must not flinch from it. More than tragedy, more than grief, more than fear — the commitment to one another must be the legacy of this time.
By William J. Barber II and Joe Kennedy III