Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty has proven deadlier than ever before. Between 2.3% and 6% of deaths in the U.S. annually are due to poverty-related complications. Today, our conversations are centered around how COVID-19 may kill millions of Americans if we reopen the economy. That is a very real fear. As of May 4, the U.S. has confirmed over one million cases of COVID-19 and recorded over 65,000 deaths. On the other hand, there has been fear that the longer we wait to open our economy, the longer it will take for us to recover from a recession. To be clear, there is likely little we can do to ensure the economy recuperates swiftly. The number of unemployed Americans stands at over 30 million as of May 4 and continues to increase. What’s missing from these nationwide conversations is, if we don’t reopen our economy or provide monetary support to millions of low-income Americans, more people will die from COVID-19 because of poverty right here in the U.S.
Without sustained support, Americans living paycheck to paycheck won’t be able to feed themselves or their families. Of these, many have or could develop underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to death from the virus if they become infected. So far, little has been done by federal or state governments to support low-income families through this nationwide lockdown. The $1,200 per-household and $500-per-child stimulus checks are hardly enough for those in poverty to overcome the heightened risks. Many individuals have yet to receive their checks or face having their checks held by their banks if they are in debt.
To reduce the number of Americans who die from COVID-19 and future pandemics, we need to understand how poverty functions as a compounding risk factor. We must work to mitigate these risks and develop a more comprehensive plan to provide small businesses and low-income families with sustained monetary supplementation during crises such as this one.
Some suggest that stay-at-home orders should persist until the state achieves public health thresholds necessary to reopen the economy. An American Enterprise Institute report has outlined four criteria that states must meet before reopening. First, hospitals must be able to treat all patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms given current resources. Second, a state must be able to test anyone with symptoms. Third, a state must be able to monitor those infected with the virus. Fourth, the number of daily confirmed cases must decrease for 14 consecutive days. These criteria are clear and sensible in terms of addressing public health dilemmas, but they fail to address the economic harm done to individuals as a result of an entire state’s economy being in lockdown. While lockdowns are necessary for public health crises, more economic relief must be provided to help individuals through this fiscal emergency.
Others contend that statewide lockdowns must end immediately in order to save the economy from an elongated recession. This argument comes largely from small business owners who lack the funds to sustain themselves and their businesses through the lockdown. To attempt to keep small businesses from going under, monetary support was provided through small business loans. Before this project was able to help the many businesses in need, the government declared on April 16 that its funds had been depleted. However, on April 24, another stimulus package for small businesses was approved. Even for the small businesses that received these loans, they often weren’t enough to keep them from having to make difficult decisions.
While some money can still be made through takeout orders and remote shopping, many small businesses have laid off most or all of their staff in order to stay afloat. As of May 4, over 30 million people have filed for unemployment since early March, resulting in a 20% national unemployment rate. For comparison, in the 2008 recession, 37 million individuals applied for unemployment over the course of a year, and the national unemployment rate never exceeded 11%. The only way a second Great Depression was avoided in 2008 was through the expansion of government loans and welfare programs. Because of these strategies, the global economy was stabilized in just 6-9 months.
Though it may be easy to comprehend how COVID-19 could kill so many Americans, understanding the connection between those deaths and poverty can be harder to grasp. A 2017 survey revealed that a staggering 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Those most impacted by the mass layoffs associated with statewide lockdowns from COVID-19 fall into this category. Once laid off, many must wait weeks or even months to start collecting benefits. In the interim, families often struggle to feed themselves with anything other than cheap frozen meals and fast food. Such poor nutrition in turn contributes to chronic disorders like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Those living at or below the poverty line in the U.S. are over twice as likely to develop cardiovascular diseases than those in higher income brackets. Moreover, food insecurity can exacerbate stress, which itself correlates strongly with heightened blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and increased cardiovascular difficulties. All of these factors drastically increase individuals’ risk of becoming infected and dying from COVID-19.
Desperation for money forces individuals such as grocery, sanitation and postal workers to continue working their essential jobs despite the significant risk of contracting COVID-19. Given that many of these individuals do not receive paid sick leave, alternative income or health coverage, those with symptoms may continue going to work and endangering others. They simply have no choice.
Nelson Santiago, an employee working at a Wendy’s in Texas during the pandemic, told Business Insider he was extremely upset that companies were trying to silence calls for paid sick leave and health care coverage by giving out free lunches to workers. “For them to say a simple thank you while they sit in the comfort of their homes with their families protected and reaping the benefits of these chains still being open — it is insulting,” Santiago said.
Unable to cover health care costs, low-income families may refrain from seeking medical help if they are experiencing symptoms. This not only puts these individuals at risk of dying but also endangers anyone they have been in close contact with. With sustained monetary support in the form of stimulus checks and increased health care coverage, low-income individuals will be better able to seek medical help or stay home when sick and thus be more likely to survive the pandemic.
This pandemic has exposed the socioeconomic inequality corroding American society. Policy solutions addressing the coronavirus pandemic must confront more than just economic issues and the death rate in the general population. The ways in which poverty increases the risk of death due to COVID-19 must also be considered. Deaths from the coronavirus related to poverty are happening now and will certainly happen again during future crises. Without intervention, our society faces a greater risk of losing the millions of low-income Americans who hold up our nation to COVID-19 and future pandemics alike.
Isabel Slingerland (20C) is from Ossining, New York.