The U.S. debate over pandemic unemployment benefits serves as archetypal cause and effect first, for how structural inequalities asphyxiate victims, and second, how forty-four million and rising unemployed plus over thirty million about to be evicted from their homes form a critical mass organizing opportunity to renegotiate.  This second story, the overriding socioeconomic “elephant in the room” proves that demand for substandard compensated jobs without benefits is perfectly elastic: almost anything looks better except maybe outright death than employment hell on earth. 

Tipping its hand, the White House attempted to whitewash intentions with a previously announced and roundly mocked for being so flagrantly out of touch, “Find Something New” advertising campaign (website & virtual roundtable).  On cue and marching in the same direction, the Republican party wing of the U.S. Congress moved to weaken the sunsetting CARES Act rate of $600 per week, in force since last March, for those who, pre-EPE (Epicenter Pandemic Economy) were paid even less for full-time jobs.   

The death knell is sounding.  At the time of this writing, the U.S. Senate through its Republican majority first voted to lower the weekly benefit by one-third to $200, ideologically “unwilling to pour another $1 trillion into the economy”, holding that the outgoing benefit is a job aid “disincentive to returning to work because it exceeds regular wages for some workers” (New York Times), and then peremptorily adjourned last Thursday, July 30th, without legislatively solving anything (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/30/senate-gop-unemployment-extension-388170).  

As a direct result, “more than 30 million unemployed Americans could see their incomes drop 50%–75%” (Axios), starting in early August.  Even when new, even discounted crisis benefits recommence, precious time will be consumed by process changes responding to an ideological twitch but  permanently disfiguring the lives of millions to face COVID-19, avoid food poverty and housing eviction simultaneously.  

“Many congressional Republicans earnestly believe that the reason unemployment is high – in the middle of an uncontained pandemic that is killing 1,000 Americans a day – is that the excessive generosity of federal benefits has rendered the unemployed unwilling to work”.  Back to the Reagan era “welfare queens” optic framing the “undeserving typically minority poor” based on the practice of cutting benefits to the most vulnerable, removing all life support especially in times of crises when such benefits are most visible and desperately needed. Core policy proscription of a bedrock conservative movement dedicated to “maximizing plutocratic prerogatives”. 

This latest “austerity” kick-down, no matter how pathologically branded, will add meaningless marginal insult to maximum personal injury. The NY Times editorial board alerts that, “Ernie Tedeschi, an economist at Evercore ISI, a financial research firm, estimates that failing to resume the federal unemployment payments would cause a drop in consumer spending large enough to eliminate about 1.7 million jobs — roughly the magnitude of job losses during the recessions of the early 1990s and the early 2000s.”  A poverty perfect storm lurking in the middle of climate hurricane season compounding a surging biomedical pandemic.

“We want to pay folks to go back to work” (recent quote from the current White House Economic Advisor) by dropping below the CARES Act’s $15/hour rate so that new benefits match existing misery wages and benefits.  A euphemism for “plantation-speak” from privilege pulpit down to sinners’ pit.  Eerily similar to orthodox conservative fiscal austerity budgets and policies that devastated vulnerable humanity, paycheck  dependent workers and homeowners, during the 2008 Great Recession.  Those Keynesian profligates but only for themselves, self-righteously morphing into fiercest and most unforgiving fiscal discipline inquisitors for others.

The sure thing bet to make, and take is that rapidly rising unemployment, homelessness, emergency room care without medical insurance and food poverty indices will quickly unflatten any social distancing curves previously achieved through shared discipline and sacrifice.  Chris Roberts in Forbes darkens this prediction, “If the payments do end, or if they’re cut, the results will be simple, predictable, and dire: More Americans will die.  Tens of thousands of Americans, seeking work or standing in food-bank lines, could die as a result of direct and avoidable exposure to the coronavirus.  And tens of thousands of more Americans could die as the root causes of the drug-overdose epidemic are exacerbated, public health experts say, a phenomenon already observed by Trump administration officials.

What is the marginal rate of return of prematurely dying on behalf of a gross national product that has grossly commoditized labor, sacrificed life for an economic statistic or a stolen and voter suppressed, sabotaged, and undermined election?  A recent Reuters poll found that, “74% of registered voters were concerned about “organized voter fraud by political actors hoping to sway the results of the elections,” including seven of 10 Democrats and eight of 10 Republicans.  About 73% of registered voters also said they were concerned about “voter suppression,” including eight of 10 Democrats and six of 10 Republicans”.  

Former Secretary of State and Senator, John Kerry, asked Congress forty-six years ago, “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die inVietnam?”  How do we ask anyone to be the last or even next unnecessary pandemic victim to die in the United States because the government wanted to goose pre-election, upbeat economy performance results?  How do you ask a newly christened “indispensable worker” to put themselves in COVID-19 harm’s way by returning to work prematurely and in blatantly unsafe conditionsfor precariat wage levels inferior to stimulus unemployment benefits?  

Imagine a Stakeholder Economy with worker-owners empowered to reimagine and recast their jobs to overcome a pandemic instead of being ordered to suck it up while others from comfortable perches self-righteously proscribe “do as I say, not as I do-ism”.  This debate over restructuring embedded inequalities, no matter how it resolves, represents a before and after turning point for how the EPE (Epicenter Pandemic Economy) changes everything.  

Facing unnecessary deaths and economic devastation, pandemic era voters can only hold these three truths to be self-evident: first, poverty is always the most expensive, time-consuming condition.  Second, those who signal for austerity while under food poverty, housing eviction, unemployment and virus contagion siege are already lifestyle expectancy immunized.  Third, classic trickle-down economics and anti-collective organizing doctrine easily morph the “right to work for less” into “the right to work and die for even more less.”

We should be collectively, deplorably ashamed but also in the words of Indian novelist, Arundhati Roy, “ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Worth reading: The Unemployed Stare Into the Abyss. Republicans Look Away. – The New York Times Paul Krugman