The US election provides an opportunity to take stock of where the country is headed and whether it is addressing the deepening crises its society faces.
We entered this pandemic amid three interconnected crises: economic inequality, racial inequality and climate change. Covid-19 has cast a harsh spotlight on the severity and disproportionate nature of their impacts.
The pandemic has devastated the economy and workers, and the damage is not close to done. America has surpassed 8 million cases of Covid-19 and is nearing 220,000 deaths due to the virus. Millions of people have lost jobs and remain unemployed—even if we start to recover, the unemployment rate could still be around 9.3 per cent by the end of the year. Workers continue to struggle to stay safe and healthy on the job, individual states see uncontrolled surges as parts of the economy reopen without serious public-health guidance, and state and local-government budgets are being ravaged, putting the financial health of those administrations in danger.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, ‘the bottom 90 per cent of the American workforce has seen their pay shrink radically as a share of total income’, from 58 per cent in 1979 to 47 per cent in 2015. That is equivalent to a loss of almost $11,000 per household, or $1.35 trillion in all, in labour income. There is a direct correlation with the decrease of worker power over this time, as the share of workers in a union fell from 24 per cent in 1979 to under 11 per cent now.
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The deck has been stacked even further against people of colour. Regardless of education level, black workers are far more likely to be unemployed than white workers, with unemployment rates historically twice as high. That disparity carries into the workplace as well, with black workers paid on average 73 cents for every dollar earned by white workers. Even with advanced degrees, black workers make far less than white workers at the same level. So while the poverty rate for white Americans sits at about 8.1 per cent, for black households it’s 20.7 per cent.
The pandemic puts an even sharper focus on the harmful impacts of this inequality. The systemic racism inherent in our society has proved deadly for black Americans: making up just 12.5 per cent of the US population, they account for 18.7 per cent of Covid-19 deaths. Among those aged 45-54, black and hispanic/latino death rates are at least six times as high as for whites.
We need to move urgently towards economic recovery. Yet returning to ‘normal’ is not good enough—we have to do better.
Last summer, the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of the some of the largest and most influential US labour unions and environmental groups, released a first-of-its-kind platform, ‘Solidarity for climate action‘, recognising that the solutions to economic inequality, racial injustice and climate change have to be addressed simultaneously. We have to fight climate change, reduce pollution and create and maintain good-paying, union jobs across the nation all at the same time. With Covid-19 worsening these crises, the vision of ‘Solidarity for climate action’ is more important than ever.
We can however tackle climate change in a way that achieves multiple goals at the same time. A strong economic-recovery package can avoid its worst impacts, deliver public-health and environmental benefits to communities, create and maintain good union jobs, address economic and racial injustice head-on, and create a cleaner, stronger and more equitable economy for all. Correcting these many systemic injustices means making significant changes to all parts of our society.
Reaching the other side of the pandemic is going to take time, and we must work to come out of it with a fairer, more sustainable and more just economy than at its onset. Covid-19 recovery efforts must take every step to protect the health and safety of frontline workers and vulnerable communities. Recovery policies must also address income inequality and climate change and have racial justice baked into their core.
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We must invest at scale in our crumbling infrastructure, which is in a dangerous state of disrepair. From failing roads and bridges and water systems, to buildings, the electricity grid and transport, infrastructure investments will boost our economy and create millions of jobs, while also reducing pollution and combating climate change—paving the way to a strong and equitable recovery.
We also need to support and retool America’s manufacturing sector, which has taken a big hit during the pandemic. Major reinvestments in transforming heavy industry to build more of the clean products, materials and technologies of the future can provide pathways to good jobs and strong domestic supply-chains, while reducing the growing climate emissions from this sector. This must secure the manufacture and distribution of personal protective equipment and other key elements of the healthcare supply-chain.
All public investments must be tied to high labour standards, including prevailing wage requirements. We can also utilise ‘buy clean’ and other procurement standards that require the federal government to consider the carbon footprint of goods to be purchased. By enforcing strong labour, procurement, local hire and community-benefit requirements, we can grow well-paying jobs across the nation.
We must prioritise equitable rebuilding and investments in those workers and communities that need it most, especially low-income communities, communities of colour and those which have experienced deindustrialisation. Generations of economic and racial inequality have disproportionately exposed low-income workers, communities of colour and others to low wages, toxic pollution and climate threats. Additionally, parts of our country went into this pandemic already economically distressed, including communities hit by the decline of the coal industry.
We must also rebuild the capacity of our public sector and services and provide critical, long-term support and protections for workers. The pandemic exposed the inadequacy of investment in our public sector. We need to rebuild and invest in our healthcare systems, public-health agencies, education and community-based services, to make us better prepared for disasters such as Covid-19 or natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. We also must rebuild and expand the social safety-net—including pensions, healthcare and retirement security—and enforce health and safety at work and in the community.
By making smart investments where they are most needed, ensuring that economic and racial justice are core principles and rebuilding with the reality of climate change to the fore, we can create a more sustainable and more just future for America.
This is part of a series on US Election 2020 supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.