The stock market finished 2020 more than 16 percent higher than it began. No matter that 340,000 people died. No matter that the real economy, the economy of human beings, is an economy of misery.
Today in the United States, 27 million adults and even more children go hungry. Since the pandemic hit, wages for low-wage workers have dropped even lower. Ever-growing numbers of small businesses have closed or face bankruptcy.
Since the pandemic hit, the nation has 56 new billionaires, a booming stock market, and record levels of profit for the biggest corporations.
Why? Because capitalism in the United States is structured to reward the rich at the expense of the rest of us—especially the lowest-paid workers who create the wealth of the country. “Essential workers” include workers like trash collectors, maintenance, grocery workers, personal care attendants, nursing assistants, mass transit employees, daycare workers, and many more. They have been applauded during the pandemic, but not rewarded. They remain among the lowest-paid, least-secure workers in the country.
More than 20 million workers lost their jobs in the initial months of the pandemic. Unemployment soared to 14.7 percent in April. That is the highest level seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Nearly 20 million workers remain unemployed today. Millions more have been forced to part-time work. They do not count as unemployed.
Millions of workers left the labor market entirely. They do not count as unemployed. These workers include, for example, women who had to stay home to take care of children when schools or daycares closed. They are classified as having left the labor market, so they are not counted as unemployed.
Those who were officially unemployed watched extended unemployment benefits run out after Christmas. Republicans in Congress stalled passage of a relief bill. Then Trump delayed signing it. Even when unemployment benefits resume in January, they will not come near replacing wages for most workers.
The pandemic relief bill gave individuals a one-time payment of $600. The bill gave a $200 billion handout to businesses.
“‘High-income business owners have had tax benefits and unprecedented government grants showered down upon them. And the scale is massive,’ said Adam Looney, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Treasury Department tax official in the Obama administration, who estimated that $120 billion of the $200 billion would flow to the top 1 percent of Americans.”
And that’s not even counting tax breaks hidden in the 5,593-page bill.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, he told the country, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
That was not true then and it is not true today.
We have to fear unchecked greed that creates billionaires at the cost of hungry children. We have to fear rampaging racism that has been encouraged to grow during the past four years. We have to fear lies about elections, about immigrants, about the COVID virus, and so much more. These lies have spread faster and infected millions more people than the pandemic.
But as in 1933, we can move forward. FDR’s New Deals put people to work building roads and bridges and creating murals and writing down the stories of ordinary people to preserve them for posterity. FDR’s New Deal created Social Security, unemployment insurance, legal protections for workers and unions, and subsidies to keep family farmers afloat.
FDR was not a savior on a white horse. He was pressured to make these life-saving changes by the people who elected him and who marched in the streets and who demanded change. In one famous example, A. Philip Randolph threatened FDR with a massive march on Washington to demand jobs for Black people. FDR resisted, but finally gave in and signed Executive Order 8802 barring discrimination in the defense industries.
The lesson for us is clear. We need to demand a reorientation of the economy so that wages and workers matter more than Wall Street. We need to attack racism in every ugly manifestation, from streets to executive board rooms and government policies. We need to put in place policies that protect the vulnerable, that stop unchecked accumulation of wealth, that reverse the destruction of the planet itself.
We need to keep the pressure on. We need to keep voting, keep marching, keep writing letters to the editor, and, yes, keep on talking to those who have been deceived by the lies or who say they are just tired of news and politics.
We won’t convince all of them, probably not even most of them. We can and we must start some of them thinking again.
We won’t succeed in passing every needed piece of legislation. We won’t even convince President Joe Biden to sign every executive orders needed to reverse the damage of the last four years. We will win some of the time. Maybe even most of the time. And that must be enough to keep going, because the stakes are too high to give up.