One reason President Donald Trump has given for wanting to cut short the economic shutdown made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic is that the financial distress it brings may be as unhealthy as the virus itself.

Thanks for noticing.

Whether it occurs during a time of crisis or not, poverty, and the stress and lack of opportunities that come with it, cause incalculable harm, taking years off of lives and crushing potential.

That’s why unprecedented payments from the government are needed now to prop up individuals and businesses affected by the shutdown so critical to stopping the outbreak.

And that’s why we need robust assistance programs to help Americans when they fall on tough times, whenever that is.

Prior to the outbreak, President Trump showed little concern for Americans experiencing economic distress. His administration has tried to cut food, housing and health care assistance for the poor. It has even suggested changing how poverty is calculated so fewer people qualify, meaning they’d lose assistance even while their situation remained dire.

And his party has for decades worked to cut assistance programs, and has fought against worker’s rights, minimum-wage increases and affordable housing, among other initiatives designed to help the poor and protect low-income workers. They’ve helped gut public health infrastructure and made health care less affordable and accessible.

As a result, and because of structural changes in the economy that have exchanged good jobs for less stable ones, the poor are worse off and workers at the lowest rung are struggling more, even when the economy overall is booming, as it was right until March.

Millions of children were left living in poverty, and millions more in something very close, even as the stock market boomed and the richest Americans got exponentially richer. For millions of Americans, housing and child care is too costly, and hunger is a part of life. The subsequent instability, financial worry and poor health in families makes it difficult for children to grow and learn, with lifelong consequences.

There has also been a surge in deaths of working-age Americans, so much that life expectancy dropped in the U.S., unprecedented for a rich nation outside of wartime.

The rise in deaths can be tied to a drop in economic well-being and has been most prevalent in areas where there has been no answer for the loss of economic vitality, such as occurs with the loss of a mill or other longtime large employers.

The country is in this position in large part because the safety net has been dismantled. We need to put it back together.

Even in its weakened state, the safety net helps. Food stamps and other assistance programs together lift tens of millions of Americans out of poverty, cutting the poverty rate in half. Last year, a $1 increase in Maine’s minimum wage meant there were 10,000 fewer children living in poverty.

Yes, poverty kills. It also stunts potential, causes unnecessary suffering and eliminates opportunity. It hits people in and out of widespread crisis, even if they do all the right things.

Poverty hurts our neighbors and weakens our society. We need to remember that now, and after this emergency subsides.

 

 


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