• Jerry Paytas

Economic Vulnerability in the Land of Opportunity: Confronting Economic Injustice

The COVID-19 pandemic is far more than a public health crisis or an economic crisis. It has revealed the cracks in America’s social capital - cracks that have long been visible to those caught in them, but that too many of us have largely ignored. I recently wrote about who the economy serves and how well it is serving the people of the United States. In short, the economy is not serving us well. It creates too few good jobs and does little to create opportunities for social mobility that can break generational disparity.

The Pittsburgh region’s economic profile prior to this crisis was not unique. Despite increasing confidence that the regional and national economies were in a ‘growth mode’ before the pandemic, we see now that more than half of our working residents are economically vulnerable. Our economy creates jobs that leave too many people on the precipice of disaster. For many of those impacted by this pandemic, hitting the reset button only pulls them back to the cliff’s edge.

Highlights of the Regional Economy Before the COVID-19 Crisis
Highlights of the Regional Economy Before the COVID-19 Crisis. Source: Fourth Economy Estimates April 2020.

It is true that America is still a land of opportunity, but those opportunities are available only to a few truly exceptional and lucky individuals. Those of us with privilege comfort ourselves that our success is earned, so the failure of others is likewise “earned.” There is a psychological empathy gap that causes us to assume that we would act differently or better than people suffering deprivation and hardship. We too often assume that the suffering of others is due to some failing or bad choices on their part, without understanding how scarcity and the deprivation of basic needs creates a tunnel vision of short-term thinking that inhibits finding long-term solutions to those needs.

The coronavirus does not discriminate, but our housing, economic, and health care policies do.

If we truly want to rebuild a more resilient economy, it will have to be one that is more equitable. Restoring a system of enduring and crushing inequality that traps people in cycles of scarcity is not a goal worthy of the world’s largest economy and one that claims the title of the Land of Opportunity. We can’t remain tied to the bootstrap argument, which rests on the faulty assumption that taking away safety nets and restricting people’s choices about whether and when to work will give them more motivation to put their lives at risk in order to earn barely enough for survival. On May 6, Governor Parson of Missouri instructed workers they would have to return to their jobs if their employers demand it or lose benefits, even though Missouri has insufficient testing and PPE to ensure their safety. In Parson’s view people need a negative incentive to work. We also fall prey to stories of entrepreneurs like Bedros Keuilian, CEO and Founder of Fit Body Boot Camp, who embodies the empathy gap with his personal rags to riches story of overcoming adversity and not giving in to excuses.

Governor Parson and Mr. Keuilian have no patience for excuses, and their perspectives reflect our collective lack of awareness of the role of systemic injustice and discrimination in housing, education, employment, and health care that locks people into generational poverty and struggle. In a recent Brookings article, Andre Perry, David Harshbarger, and Carl Romer clarify how past and current policy choices have reinforced the inequalities that the pandemic has now exposed:

The coronavirus does not discriminate, but our housing, economic, and health care policies do.