Facing coronavirus, poverty is a preexisting condition

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all Americans, but it is hitting the poor the hardest, in part because those workers simply can’t afford to adhere to social distancing restrictions if it means going without a paycheck.

And they are more likely to have jobs that can’t be done on a laptop, and require public contact.

Smartphone data compiled by the New York Times shows that working-class New Yorkers doing jobs now deemed “essential,” such as grocery store clerks or public transit employees, have continued to move around their communities, while the more affluent have stayed home, working remotely if necessary, to avoid exposing themselves to COVID-19.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted on Friday about what she sees as the “inequality” inherent in how COVID-19 is affecting rich and poor communities.

The risk to workers who can’t afford to stay at home and must show up at their jobs despite the risks posed by COVID-19 is exemplified by the death of Jason Hargrove, a 50-year-old bus driver with the Detroit Department of Transportation.

“This coronavirus s*** is real, and we are out here as public workers, doing our job, trying to make an honest living to take care of our families,” Hargrove said in a video posted to Facebook on March 21 in response to an interaction he had with a sickened rider. “But for you to get on the bus and stand on the bus and cough several times without covering your mouth and you know that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that lets me know that some folks don’t care, utterly don’t give a f***, excuse my language, but that’s how I feel right about now.”

Hargrove started to feel sick four days after encountering the passenger on his bus route, and died a week later of COVID-19, Detroit’s bus drivers’ union said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that the poor in his city were being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The vast majority of New Yorkers are working-class people, are lower-income folks, who have no option but to stand and fight,” he said. “They can’t go anyplace else, they don’t have an alternative to childcare, they don’t have a nanny.”

And they are more likely to have preexisting health risks such as diabetes, asthma or obesity.

Data compiled by ProPublica illustrates that COVID-19 has been disproportionately impacting African-Americans, and breakdown of COVID-19 cases in New York City by ZIP code shows that less affluent outer-borough neighborhoods — where residents may need to commute to their jobs by public transit — have been hit harder than the relatively wealthy parts of Manhattan.

In a daily newsletter sent Thursday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer noted that a run on food at grocery stores was clearing shelves of stock designated for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for poor residents.

“The beginning of the month is when many public assistance benefits come in; with children staying home, families’ food supplies may have depleted more quickly, making grocery shopping at the start of the new month a necessity rather than a preference,” Brewer wrote.

A 2019 study by the American Payroll Association found that 74 percent of employees in the country would face financial hardship if a paycheck were delayed for a single week. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen in the U.S., shutting down economic activity across large swaths of the country, food pantries that typically serve the poor have seen a surge in the number of people asking for help. At the same time, the number of volunteers and the donations that food pantries typically receive have plummeted.

The roughly $2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump provides one-time checks of $1,200 to Americans with adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 per year, or $150,000 for married couples, with a one-time payment of $500 per child. Checks are also available to U.S. citizens who have no income or who rely on government programs like Social Security to pay their bills.

But April rent is now past due for many Americans waiting for their one-time payments from the federal government. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Thursday that he expected the checks to arrive before the end of the month.

Confirming that poor people don’t have the luxury of waiting months to be paid, a new Axios-Ipsos survey found that the coronavirus is “spreading a dangerous strain of inequality.”

“It’s a tale of two Americas,” said Cliff Young, president of U.S. public affairs at Ipsos, adding, “The rich and affluent have gone virtual. They’ve maintained their jobs through the virtual world. The working and the poor are more exposed.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images


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