The social dimension of the coronavirus crisis in the USA


The coronavirus crisis is leading to massive social distortions in the US. It is increasing the existing structural inequalities and discriminations in the US economy and society.

Die Nationalgarde von Michigan unterstützt rund 400 Familien bei der Reaktion auf COVID-19

The United States in April 2020, that is cars queueing for miles outside food banks, more than 22 million people registering for unemployment, lengthy waiting times for sick people who need COVID-19 tests and desperate stories of people who can no longer pay their rent or mortgage. The coronavirus crisis has ruthlessly laid bare the cracks in American society. 

Growing social inequality 

Access to healthcare, a roof over your head and a hot meal on the table, even in the recent years of record growth of the American economy, many citizens have struggled to meet these basic human needs. In 2018, while the wealth of the richest Americans grew to unprecedented heights, 40% of citizens had less than $400 in emergency funds to fall back on in the event of an unexpected expenditure.

Despite the financial sector representing an ever-greater share of the US economy, the nation’s taxation system continues to focus on incomes rather than capital, businesses or financial transactions. This has caused the social divide to widen considerably. At the same time, there is still no robust welfare state in the US for those in need.

The country has long since woken up from the American dream that anybody can achieve economic success. Two thirds of US citizens have no higher education degree and therefore almost no prospect of getting ahead. At the same time, there are more students from the wealthiest 1% of American families enrolled at Ivy League universities such as Yale and Princeton than from the bottom 60% put together.

The current crisis is throwing these extreme inequalities into sharp relief while continuing to exacerbate these tendencies. For the approximately 50 million Americans who have long been living below the poverty line, life has become existential in the fullest sense of the word.

How the crisis affects the most vulnerable people 

In several respects, the coronavirus crisis is hitting the economically more vulnerable parts of the population particularly hard. 

Poorer Americans are far less likely to be in a position to be able to work from home and disproportionately have jobs that have been directly affected by the crisis, such as hotels and restaurants, retail or the mobility sector. In the absence of an adequate welfare state and personal savings, these people are now threatened not only by long-term unemployment, but also by homelessness and hunger.

Those who are able to continue their jobs or to find work in new markets, such as the booming delivery service suppliers, are at a higher risk of infection in return for their meagre earnings. The country-wide shortages of PPE make this risk even greater.

Nor is the risk by any means comparable for all COVID-19 patients in the US. A recent study shows that the death rates of older people in particularly hard-hit cities in the US correlate directly with poverty and are considerably higher than the European figures. One reason for this lies in the higher numbers of pre-existing health conditions, as a legacy of poverty.

Another study demonstrates that a central indicator is air pollution, which is distributed very unevenly through the US, concentrating in areas with higher proportions of poorer citizens. Furthermore, the state and readiness of the healthcare system varies greatly from one region to the next.

And millions of US citizens living in economically precarious situations have no health insurance to start with and avoid going to the doctor on financial grounds, no matter how urgently they need to do so.

Last but not least, the social distortions within the American education system are now on full display. US school districts are funded predominantly out of local taxes, with according big differences of resources for schools, depending on the district they are in. The knock-on effect of this is particularly conspicuous in terms of schools’ access to digital learning resources and the digital access of the students themselves from home.

Most US states are still a long way off being ready to reopen their schools and some have already made clear that there will be no more teaching on-site for the rest of the school year. This is manageable for wealthy parents with laptops, tablets and a secure income working from home, but for millions of families without Internet access and living precariously in terms of work and housing, this means little or no access to education for their children. 

Racism and social inequality 

The social distortions in the US have also gone hand in hand with racism and a structural discrimination of minorities ever since the country was founded. There are now numerous studies showing that black and Latino communities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, in both economic and health terms.

Blacks and Latinos disproportionately live in the worst-affected urban areas. They have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, poorer access to testing and a greater likelihood of a serious infection. They are disproportionately affected by job losses as a result of the crisis. And even before the crisis, when most did have jobs, 40% of African-Americans qualified for food aid.

The current social situation is particularly alarming for single parents. And more than 60% of African-American children in the US are being raised by a single parent, in most cases a mother, far more than the national average. 

The crisis is thus not affecting the population equally, but very differently depending on geography, economy and ethnicity. Instead of addressing this fact at the political level and prioritising the urgent needs of the most vulnerable sectors of the population in the rescue packages, President Trump and the Republican Party continue to resist any expansion of the welfare state in the US.

This is also influenced by the fact that they do not see the African-American and Latino populations that have borne the brunt of the pandemic as relevant to them as voters. Instead, the President is predominantly concerned with finding scapegoats for the shortcomings of his policies, playing off the States against each other and dividing the US population. 

What happens next?

Against this backdrop, the existing rescue packages at the national level are nowhere near enough to address the deep-rooted social distortions in the US that were not brought into being by the coronavirus, but which have been intensified by it.

The White House’s main focus is on rescuing big businesses and propping up the stock market. The comparatively modest fund to help small businesses has already been used up and furthermore, according to media reports, some of it has been diverted to bolster major hotel and restaurant chains. In the meantime, taxpayers have started to receive their symbolic stimulus cheques, signed by Donald Trump.

Although these are graded roughly on the basis of income, they are more like an election campaign handout than a needs-based support for the citizens who most need it. Alongside them, there has, on the insistence of Democrats, at least been some expansion of food aid and a limited expansion of workers’ rights. 

But nothing so far has been done that will get to the root cause of the problem, namely that a large proportion of the US population, predominantly African-Americans and other minorities, are living in socially precarious conditions and, more than any generation before them, they have hardly a share in the economic success of the US. 

Among the ranks of the Democrats, however, more serious debates are taking place. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders and the much more progressive direction taken by the party overall has led to an animated discussion on the future structure of the welfare state and society in the US. For instance, a “Green New Deal” was tabled a year ago, combining  sustainable development with addressing structural discrimination and social inequality. 

It is not yet clear to what degree Joe Biden, as the presidential candidate, will refer to these concepts. But against the backdrop of the crisis, it appears at least possible that the Democrats – along the lines of the “New Deal” of Franklin D. Roosevelt – will make the case for a comprehensive structural reform of the American welfare state and the American economy in their election campaign, to secure greater educational justice, increase access to affordable healthcare, do more to protect employee’s rights and address America’s structural racism. 

In order for such an approach is to have the best chance of success, the Democrats should also recognise the myth of the American meritocracy as such. The deeply rooted belief in the United States of America as a system that offers all people the same basic opportunities, and where your social and economic success depends solely on your skills and hard work, is partly responsible for the unfounded belief of the wealthiest sections of American society that they have “earned” their status and for their lack of empathy with people living on the edge of society. This fallacy is one of the roots of the coronavirus-induced social misery that currently plagues the country.