Credit: Contributed

We are now well into the COVID-19 Recession. Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, an alarming number of households are struggling to put food on the table and make their rent payments. No surprise: people of color and lower-income families are disproportionately suffering the harshest impacts. And even at the apex of the Presidential campaign season, both the candidates and our political leaders appear to be fresh out of bold ideas to right this ship.

COVID-19 was a setback for white-collar earners but a life-altering blow for lower-income workers and poor families. It exacerbated – and potentially makes permanent for the foreseeable future – inequities in education, employment, housing, and health care among Blacks, Latinx, hourly workers and people without college degrees.

The pandemic’s yet-untallied cultural and economic repercussions will require the United States to mount nothing less than a wartime-scale domestic relief program focused on the working poor, children, single parents and people of color. It must model the scope and forcefulness of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor-intensive New Deal and John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.

Here in New York City, we desperately need a major reimagining of basic education and job training to address mass unemployment, federal subsidies to abate the eviction crisis, unstinting support for “Fair Fares” discount MetroCards to make mass transit ridership possible for the working poor, and equitable funding for safety-net hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus expenses.

Calling this an urgent matter is not hyperbole. The facts demand it. We are living through a generational cataclysm; a period of deep personal and economic loss that has befallen identifiable segments of society through no fault of their own. Nationally, for instance, as many as one in three working mothers are considering cutting back on their hours or leaving their jobs entirely because of a lack of child care, according to a recent study from LeanIn.org and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. And – no surprise – the pandemic has proven especially difficult for Black and Latina mothers.

In New York City, an estimated 735,000 households have lost employment income as a result of COVID-19, according to New York University. The lion’s share of households facing eviction and hunger are clustered in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. While the official unemployment rate is 14.1 percent, a study by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs placed the true figure much higher at 32.7 percent overall and 41 percent in the Bronx. Remote learning has been disastrous for many of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren.  Tens of thousands of children without internet connections (including roughly 114,000 homeless families) struggle to participate. An untold number have all but dropped out of school.

The presidential candidates have not discussed in depth their visions to address pandemic poverty and racial inequities. No one, for example, has talked much about the 14 million renters who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, believe they will be evicted soon. In New York, we wait for the bickering on a federal aid package to end and much-needed assistance to come our way. Without it, no one knows for sure what will happen come January when Gov. Cuomo’s eviction moratorium expires, back rent comes due, mortgage forbearance agreements end, and landlords’ property tax bills arrive.

Too many households are teetering toward the edge. Bold steps need to be taken, but we’re not hearing much about them from the presidential candidates. This unfortunately is nothing new. Modern-era Republicans and Democrats alike have been loath to take dramatic action, even when it was clearly needed. That reluctance was evident under presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and even Barack Obama. They were all concerned with acquiring majorities and retaining them. This time-honored aversion to big responses was reflected in the $2.59 trillion federal coronavirus relief package, much of which is in process of expiring. The package had significant gaps, such as leaving out seven million children in the poorest households, who did not receive a COVID-emergency increase in food stamps. For months now, Congress has vacillated over fixing the initial package and approving additional direct aid. Meanwhile, the nation suffers.

In Albany, walking on eggshells has often been the name of the game for New York lawmakers, many of whom were historically more concerned with staking out positions they believe preserves their seats in the Legislature than doing the right thing. Case in point: it took the horrific, overt and public killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers to get the governor and state lawmakers to finally act on a long overdue package of police accountability measures aimed at reining in abusive police conduct.

Even in the face of epic misery, trust that the squeaky wheels get the grease. We must raise our voice to advocate for big, muscular action. No matter how this election plays out, we must agitate and demand humanitarian and economic action scaled to the need.

And we must convince ourselves and our leaders to take a broad view of America.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.