COMMENTARY

COVID's pre-existing condition: Pandemic has been devastating for the poor

New data from the Poor People's Campaign reveals an immense disparity in COVID deaths. Why should we act surprised?

By Bob Hennelly

Published April 12, 2022 5:30AM (EDT)

People participate in a march to Trinity Church for a moral Mass on April 11, 2022 in New York City. The event, dubbed the Mass Poor People's & Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington, DC and led by the Revs. Dr. William J. Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis, is part of a Polls Mobilization tour. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
People participate in a march to Trinity Church for a moral Mass on April 11, 2022 in New York City. The event, dubbed the Mass Poor People's & Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington, DC and led by the Revs. Dr. William J. Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis, is part of a Polls Mobilization tour. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

As we head into the Easter and Passover holidays, the horrific images coming out of Ukraine, along with images of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, have pushed the ongoing pandemic off the "breaking news" page. Just days away from blowing past the threshold of one million deaths in the U.S., the social media analytics that now inform news judgments have moved on to other, more profitable topics.

There is little media appetite to double back and look in depth at the pre-existing social conditions that set the stage for the COVID mass death event, in which poor people of color died at an exponentially higher rate than wealthier whites, both in my home state of New Jersey and throughout the country. The Democrats who control Congress could not even muster the moral coverage to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage nor continue the expanded Child Tax Credit, which briefly lifted millions of children out of poverty.

Last week, the Rev. William J. Barber's Poor People's Campaign released the first-of-its-kind comprehensive study of COVID deaths in over 3,000 U.S. counties that plugged in the intersectionality of poverty, income, race and geography. The research is part of the campaign's national organizing drive culminating in the June 18 Poor People's and Low Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington.

RELATED: Rev. William J. Barber II: America is now at the "most critical time, between life and death"

"The findings we will hear today are shameful and will shock us, because, as a nation, we do not talk about poverty," Barber told reporters April 4 at a press conference at the National Press Club.

Yet in the pandemic, we will hear that there have been two, three, four, five times the deaths in poorer communities as in richer ones…. We encourage everyone here to walk through the data after this conference and take the time to see what has been so far unseen. The findings are so contrary to a nation that claims first and foremost to establish justice, and certainly contrary to the call of God to care for the least of these.

Remember, this unnecessary death happened while we gave corporations $2 trillion to keep them alive and the richest Americans saw their wealth soar. It's a gross example of what Naomi Klein has called the "shock doctrine," when the wealthy exploit tragedy to increase their own profits while poor people suffer. This report shows that a poverty-producing and sustaining system was also a death-dealing system. Within this analysis, we can see that it did not need to be this way, if only we were honest about poverty and systemic racism, and the systems of violence that allowed this tragedy.

The Poor People's white paper was co-authored by renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and was released the same day as a deeply disturbing analysis released by the United Way of Northern New Jersey and its research arm United for ALICE, which found that 63% of New Jersey's Black children and 60% of the state's Hispanic children were living in "financial hardship" before the pandemic.

Out of New Jersey's 1.9 million children, 41% live in families below the ALICE survival threshold (see definition below) and almost 60% of those are "rent-burdened," paying 35% of their income for shelter. One in four have no access to high-speed internet, while almost one in three are not getting food stamps (SNAP benefits).

The New Jersey data was part of a comprehensive state by state United Way analysis entitled "Children in Financial Hardship" that looked at children living below the official federal poverty level and households earning above that but who struggle week to week to cover the essential expenses like rent, utilities, food and child care. Back in 2009, United Way researchers started tracking these families they dubbed ALICE, which stands for "asset limited, income constrained but employed."


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Nationally, the United Way found nearly half of the children in the U.S. lived in households that were "experiencing financial hardship," with 16% below the federal poverty level, while 33% were above that threshold, yet still struggling to cover the basics. While ALICE families are evident in every demographic, the racial disparities are stark. Nationally, 70% of Black children and 68% of Hispanic children are living below the ALICE threshold, as compared to 36% of white children.

In raw numbers, out of the 72 million children in the country, 36 million live below the ALICE threshold, which includes 12 million below the official federal poverty level.

Follow-up analysis by the United Way in the midst of the pandemic showed that once COVID hit, these struggling families saw thing go from bad to worse.

In the fall of 2021, half of New Jersey families below the ALICE threshold reported that their children "sometimes or often" didn't have enough to eat.

"COVID-19 hit ALICE families so much harder than others because they struggle to build savings yet often don't qualify for financial assistance," said ALICE Project national director Stephanie Hoopes. According to the project's research, half of New Jersey families below the ALICE threshold reported in the fall of 2021 that their children "sometimes or often" didn't have enough to eat, as compared to 32% of those with higher incomes.

In addition to food insecurity, children in ALICE households were more likely to be subject to "interrupted learning and skipping preventative health care," according to Hoopes.

The gap between the prevailing wage for certain jobs like cashier or home health care aide and the actual cost of living looms even larger in a period of high inflation, like the one we are currently experiencing. For instance, 79% of children who have a parent who works as a cashier — a job that pays a median wage of $11.37 an hour — are in an ALICE household. Back in 2019, ALICE researchers found that for economic stability in New Jersey, a single wage earner would need to get $22 an hour, while a family of four would need to bring in $55 an hour.

Gov. Phil Murphy made raising the state's minimum wage a top priority. This year it went up to $13 an hour and is scheduled to hit $15 by 2024. There are cut-outs for seasonal, agricultural, small businesses and tipped workers.

The ongoing pandemic has continued to roil the labor market where employers complain they can't find enough workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year wages grew by 4.5%, the biggest spike since 1983. But when inflation is factored in, workers continued to lose ground.

"The earning power of working people has been held in check for decades, and there are structural reasons for it," Sachs told InsiderNJ. "Of course, we have had the weakening of unions — the busting of unions — and the move to the digital economy has been another aspect. Gig work has been part of it, and then there's the tax policies that have pushed so much money to the top."

Sachs observed that the U.S. does not have a social safety net for working Americans, like those ALICE households, many of whom are essential workers. This cohort often lacks the basic benefits that used to be provided as part of the social contract between employees and employer.

"So we have tens of millions of people in the precariat economy that are just vulnerable to whatever is going to happen next because our political system is so plutocratic, rotten and nasty," said Sachs. "The millionaires in Congress, like Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia, one of the poorest places in the country, has instincts and politics that has him siding with the gazillionaires."

America lacks a social safety net for working families, said Jeffrey Sachs, "because our country is uniquely mean at the top. Rich people are mean."

Sachs points out that social safety net programs like subsidized universal pre-K or child care, which are widely accepted in Canada and other Western democracies, could lift up many ALICE families. Yet they are stymied in Beltway debates, he said, "because our country is uniquely mean at the top. Rich people are mean. They don't want a small amount of help to go to poor women who are trying to raise kids, even in a pandemic, and even with a massive increase of wealth at the top."

Perhaps for wealthy Washington policy makers it's hard to put a face on these tragic data points of deprivation.

Almost 20 years ago, I grabbed one of the last seats at the funeral of 7-year-old Faheem Williams at the Emmanuel Church of Christ in Newark. His body had been found in a plastic storage bin in a home in Newark in January of 2003. He had died after a fall in Irvington several months earlier and his family had not sought medical attention.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Gov. James McGreevey and Newark Mayor Sharpe James all spoke to the packed congregation. For a few weeks, the specific cruelty of how the 7-year-old was treated and the failures of New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services made national headlines.

"It was one of New Jersey's most gruesome child abuse cases, a 7-year-old boy's mummified body stuffed into a plastic container only a few feet from where his two starving brothers were kept in a locked basement with a bucket for a toilet," reported the New York Times at the time. "The family had been investigated for child abuse or neglect 10 times over as many years, but a caseworker overwhelmed by 107 other cases failed to follow up on a report several months before the boys' discovery that they were being beaten and burned."

I have kept the laminated mass card with Faheem's picture on it that the Star Ledger reported made him look "pensive." I think he knew something: Everything in his life was amiss. I have held on to his card to remind me that every news story I do is about actual people.

At the time, I was covering the case for WNYC. I was struck by the cruel irony that his funeral was so well attended, yet at the times that had mattered most in his short life, he was very much alone.

Read more on the human costs of the pandemic:


Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Commentary Covid-19 Inequality Insider Nj New Jersey Pandemic William J. Barber Ii