It should come as no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic is taking a larger economic toll on our most vulnerable populations. A 2016 study by Pew Research Center found that at $17,100, the median net worth of black households was less than one-fifth that of all U.S. households ($97,300), meaning they have much less in savings, if any, to rely on before being unable to pay for necessities.
The problem is compounded as emergency actions to help people suffering through cratering income often neglect these same communities. Measures such as lowering of short term interest rates are meant to help reduce the pressure of debt upon those owing to credit cards and mortgages. However, they only work for those who have the assets and access to money and credit.
Another example of a vulnerable population being excluded from efforts to assuage economic catastrophe is in the much-touted Paycheck Protection Program or PPP. Created through the CARES Act to provide relief to small businesses suffering lost business and revenues during the pandemic shutdown, it proved so wildly popular that it ran through its funding in two weeks.
While the PPP seeks to help many small businesses weather the nearly nationwide shutdown, it explicitly excluded many persons with a criminal record. If a small business owner is on probation or parole, has unresolved criminal charges without a conviction, or has been convicted of a felony in the last five years, he or she is ineligible for a PPP loan. It is prudent to exclude those who have committed offenses related to financial dishonesty, such as bank fraud or extremely serious offenses such as rape and murder. But in a country where it is estimated nearly one-third of the adult population has a criminal record, this blanket exclusion ignores those who have turned their lives around and are productive, contributing members of their communities.
As cities all over the nation are entering fourth and fifth weeks of stay-at-home and social distancing orders that have shut down much of the economy, the media is replete with stories of protests by people concerned that the shutdowns violate the Constitution. However, resistance to extending nonessential business closures because of the economic affects is also coming from some city officials. On April 3 in Dallas County, Texas, the first county commissioner to vote against extending Judge Clay Jenkins’s shelter-in-place order was John Wiley Price, who represents predominately African American south Dallas. His reason for limiting Jenkins’s emergency powers? “Sixty days [of a stay-at-home order] will decimate my community,” Price said.
Days later, three other commissioners joined Price in a unanimous vote requiring Jenkins to get their approval to extend the stay-at-home order past April 30. In doing so, Dallas County commissioners signaled that there are limits to how long some citizens can go without being able to make a living. On April 21, the commissioners extended the order to May 15, with Price and commissioner J.J. Koch voting against the measure.
What south Dallas residents are experiencing is not unique, and unfortunately is reflective of communities across the country that suffer through limited opportunities in the best of times. The shutdowns across the country have gone on for over a month, and we cannot live under the illusion that we can keep the country treading water for as long as it takes to quell the pandemic.
The most vulnerable among us have sounded the alarm that every day they are not allowed to earn a living is a day that they are sucked deeper into the depths of poverty. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as does economic necessity. Leaders across this country are wrestling with when and how to reopen the economy. They must balance physical health with economic health. It would behoove them to consider people in places such as south Dallas, for whom returning to work yesterday was already a matter of survival.