I was watching the reopening protests the other day (yes, I write a bit slow, this post is about the reopening posts not the police protests) and noticed that many of my friends, mostly, but not entirely, those who don’t live in the USA, were rather shocked by the scene. So, I thought it might be useful to write up a little of US culture and why some people might look at the lock down as an existential issue requiring lobbying to return to work. Note that we’re not talking about the astroturfed “reopening” groups, but those with a legitimate concern and I definitely do not support reopening early. This post is about empathising with those who are asking to open; even though I personally believe there are much better approaches to handling the crisis.
For many, they will see it as the only reasonable approach to avoiding the pitfalls of impending poverty and homelessness. Under these circumstances, it’s far more reasonable to be out on the street arguing that you want to be able to work.
Imagine, for a moment, that you, along with 80% of the rest of the USA, are living pay cycle to pay cycle. 2 weeks of unemployment and you’ll be unable to pay off your credit card debt, unable to pay rent and unable to get health insurance. Paying for care, even with insurance, was always going to be difficult. The pandemic has arrived and everything is shut down, more importantly for you, your employers have either laid you off or furloughed you (either way, you’re not getting paid). Unemployment insurance is only covering a portion, varying state by state but typically around $400/week, of what you earned from your job. None of the gig economy work you were doing on the side to keep your head above water is covered. Health insurance is also tied to your job, so there’s a deep underlying concern that if you end up with COVID-19 you may not have insurance to cover the costs. Yes, you theoretically have COBRA, but you can’t afford it as you were already on the edge and it’s an added expense. You’ve filed for Medicaid, but who knows if you’ll be approved and what they’ll cover. You contemplate getting bronze level instance but that’s a little over $400/month. It also comes with both a high deductible, around $5,800 which you have to pay before insurance even starts to apply, and some level of surprise billing. Either way, it’s going to cost thousands of dollars if you happen to get really unlucky and end up on a ventilator. Also, who knows what will or won’t be covered by insurance, even if you do have it. If you get COVID-19 and survive you might be able to navigate the maze of medical debt forgiveness and consolidation. There’s also a very real chance that you’re going to be forced to declare bankruptcy.
Growing up, it’s been stressed how important individual responsibility is. Receiving welfare is a moral failure and clearly anyone who takes money from the government should just get a job. You’re not a welfare queen, you really want to pull your weight, which means working and paying your way. Also, being from a conservative family, a lot of stress has been put on how untrustworthy the government is, so you’re naturally suspicious as to how necessary these measures are and whether there’s some underlying excuse to widen government power. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”. A quote that you’ve often heard repeated again and again by those around you, but which both critically misses that the full quote is “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” and the full context of the quote.
So here you are; poor, uninsured (or very concerned that you may be close to it), concerned about the costs that will accumulate if you do get sick and the probable bankruptcy afterwards, sure that the government will not assist you (and worried that even if they try, it will be for their benefit not for yours) and feeling a societal obligation to earn your way as you aren’t a slacker.
Then, the federal government comes out with some very mixed messaging. On one side you’re seeing people say that masks and social distancing are important, on the other you see the president not wearing a mask or keeping social distance and frequently attacking the need to do so. Eventually, a stimulus is decided upon and you receive a one time payment of $1,200 as you earn less than $75,000/year. This is fine if you happen to live in Morganfield Kentucky, where the average rent for a two bedroom is $375/month, but much less so if you are paying $3,631 per month for a two bedroom in San Francisco. Now the house in San Francisco is likely to be split 4 ways (maybe more), not just 2, but that’s still $907/month and there goes most of the $1,200 stimulus.
Of course, the right answer here is for the government to use its ability to borrow cheaply and provide a safety net. This would allow people to feel confident that they can stay safely at home without having to weigh off death by COVID-19 vs death by exposure and starvation. If the federal government had stepped in and provided a consistent response that ensured that nobody had to worry about survival, we’d be in a very different place and these protests would probably be entirely astroturf.
A big thank you to Elysa and Vic for taking the time to review this article and provide feedback.