Americans, and perhaps the world, face the most consequential election of our lifetimes. COVID-19 has laid bare the fragility of our medical, social and economic systems; its impacts have been devastating. Our planet is experiencing accelerating impacts of climate change, with increasingly deadly and destructive consequences.

And at the very moment that these hardships are being felt by so many, crucial elements of the social safety net, literal lifelines for the most vulnerable members of our society, are frayed. Before us lies an opportunity to reorient our country in a way that addresses the shameful inadequacies of our past.

Rob Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. 

ECONOMIC SECURITY

The impacts of COVID-19 once again showed the vulnerability of low wage workers who are too often one paycheck away from economic disaster. Low-wage jobs suddenly became essential and workers became disposable as we left them unprotected. We need a renewed commitment to place higher value on the workers and jobs at the lower end of the wage scale and enforce worker protection and respect by raising minimum wages with inflation escalators, extend health insurance coverage beyond employer-provided coverage, provide for family leave and fund career advancement opportunities more robustly under a comprehensive economic security system aligned with today’s labor market realities.

Structural changes in the labor market including shifts to more independent contracting need ongoing monitoring and legislative attention to ensure worker protections including proper classifications, fair compensation and appropriate work rules. Independent contract workers should be covered under unemployment and health insurance systems.

The length of job tenure and employment stability have become shortened, forcing workers to make more frequent job and career changes without adequate levels of support under current schemes. We must provide for better work and earnings continuity for workers caught in the crossfire of technological change and a rapidly evolving labor market. Modernization of how we design and fund the unemployment insurance system is long overdue.

During the pandemic, sick workers who are worried about missing work and losing out on wages or potentially losing their job will be less likely to stay home, which can spread the disease to others. Paid sick leave can lessen both economic shocks and negative public health outcomes, and not only during significant disease outbreaks. The lack of adequate child care has also been disastrous, particularly for low-income workers.

Now is not the time for short-term thinking, and austerity cannot be the only option on the table. To make the investments in human capital to achieve higher standards of worker support, we need progressive taxation.  A vast majority of Americans — including 77% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans — support the idea that “the very rich should contribute an extra share of their total wealth each year to support public programs.”

Our political leaders must arrive at a new consensus about the social contract essential for a just and moral future. We all must be willing to pay the price.

Ryan LaRochelle, Ph.D., is a lecturer at the Cohen Institute for Leadership & Public Service at the University of Maine. John Dorrer is a retired labor economist.

SOCIAL STABILITY

Health care is a key issue in the upcoming election. Its centrality was compounded and bluntly revealed over this past year. People’s physical and mental health issues are worsening. One-third of Americans have delayed getting medical care during the past month because of the pandemic. Moreover, pandemic-related job loss will swell the ranks of those losing health insurance and qualifying for Medicaid.  To counter looming health crises, policymakers will need to increase federal funding of safety net programs (i.e., Medicaid) as well as further investments in public health programs and systems. Additionally, if elected officials enact a further dismantling of Obamacare, then a viable replacement proposal must be on the table.

Increased unemployment and reduced household incomes nationally and have also led to increased hunger for millions of Americans. The Good Shepherd Food Bank reports that 180,000 people in Maine are food insecure: this number is expected to swell to 250,000. National and state policymakers must respond by instituting initiatives which will expand efforts to address food insecurity.

The criminal justice system is enormously costly nationwide and in Maine. Overuse of arrest and incarceration for nonviolent offenses contributes substantially to this high cost. Research suggests that this use could be greatly reduced without endangering public safety, seen recently with the release of incarcerated people due to COVID-19. Policymakers should repurpose corrections dollars toward prevention programs and practices known to reduce crime and drug use. Such efforts would be prudent in Maine, with one of the lowest crime rates in the nation.

Housing crises abound: Many households are falling behind on mortgage or rent payments with an estimated 30-40 million Americans at risk of eviction. The Census Bureau reports that more than one-third of Americans lack “high confidence” in their ability to make the next month’s payment. Maine has wisely provided rental assistance to residents who meet certain criteria. Policies that alleviate the rental crisis and expand the inventory of low- and middle-income housing units are critical and must be on the national agenda.

Steve E. Barkan is a retired professor of sociology at the University of Maine. Lisa Miller is a former state legislator and member of the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY

Wildfires are scorching millions of acres of land in the West and a hyperactive hurricane season continues to bear down on the Gulf Coast and Southeast states. Maine sometimes feels a world away from these threats, yet we can see the smoke in the air from wildfires across the country and hurricanes are projected to travel up our coastline in what may be a troubling new normal. Rising sea levels and ocean acidification are affecting our coastal communities right now, while warmer winters and longer summers mean that ticks and other insects create new risks for residents and our important tourism industry. Climate change impacts are here now, and a strong and decisive response is required from federal and state leaders to address these present and emerging threats.

What’s at stake is the last real chance we have to meet the climate crisis with bold federal and state policies that have the power to reshape the trajectory of climate impacts now and for generations to come.

Yet even as we face such a stark reality head-on, we can find assurance in the knowledge that we have the tools to rise to the challenge. The Maine Climate Council is at work developing a comprehensive climate action plan to guide the state towards its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045 while creating jobs, attracting new industries, and ensuring clean water, air, and soil. Long-standing policies such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) have proven effective at reducing carbon emissions across the Northeast. Maine is poised to become a leader in extended producer responsibility for packaging — an important policy intervention that would reduce carbon emissions by limiting plastic pollution and waste while helping Maine municipalities expand recycling programs.

Maine is hard at work generating local solutions to the climate crisis. What we lack is the political will in Washington to develop and invest in climate solutions at the scale needed to address the challenge we face. We need the federal government to step up in a big way.

Anna McGinn is a policy associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). Brieanne Berry is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine.

Authors are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. These commentaries reflect their views and expertise and do not speak on behalf of the university. EESI is a nonpartisan organization and does not endorse political candidates. 

 


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