Lately, I have been hearing many people say things like, “let’s get together when all of this is over” or “I look forward to traveling again when there is a vaccine” or even, “when this is all behind us, we will finally get married.” I totally get it. People are tired of the uncertainty, of being socially and physically distant, of spending entire days on Zoom, of using hand sanitizer and having to wear a face mask to go to the grocery store or even to walk down the street.
People long for a level of “normalcy.” They miss what they perhaps took for granted up until mid-March. They crave for the light at the end of the 2020 grim tunnel and they want to make plans. Trust me, I feel that way too. But… and here comes the “but”, I know for a fact that this will not be over any time soon, especially for the people I work with day in and day out.
I am talking about those who live on the margins of society: people who are homeless or home insecure, low-wages earners, undocumented immigrants who work in our food supply chain, those who suffer from mental health challenges or are recovering from addiction and those coming out of prisons and jails. These are all vulnerable populations. They struggled before COVID-19 hit us and their numbers have soared since. At least half of our current clients are new.
Consider the 2008 economic recession, the one caused by the deregulation of the financial sector that led big corporate banks to engage in risky lending practices that triggered a severe market crash and left many people and businesses bankrupt. The aftershocks of that implosion were painful and long-lasting.
The unprecedented rate of housing foreclosure pushed many families off the edge with dire consequences for the new generations. According to a report by PolicyLab, between 2007 and 2009, approximately 2.2 million children entered the ranks of the poor, making them more susceptible to negative social, health and developmental outcomes. The research also shows that people who suffered a financial, housing-related, or job-related hardship in the 2008 recession, were more likely to show increases in symptoms of depression, anxiety and drug use. By the end of 2009, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent.
And all that was a result of a severe economic recession that officially lasted approximately one and a half years. Now we are dealing with a protracted global pandemic, with no end in sight, and a massive economic recession that has prompted more than 50 million Americans (1 in 4) to file for unemployment benefits. Hit hardest by both the novel Coronavirus and the recession are black and brown communities across America. The rest of the world is in no better shape as entire sectors, and all the jobs that depend upon them (tourism, hospitality, sports etc.) collapse leaving behind a trail of despair and desolation.
At Thrive DC, we have seen many new faces. People who have never asked for help before are now coming to pick up a bag of groceries or a couple of sandwiches. Over the coming months, more people will go hungry and, as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program will come to an end on July 25, we expect to see a surge in requests for emergency assistance. Because at the end of the day, the 2008 economic recession showed us how the downturn actually plays out: the needs of the most vulnerable increase dramatically but, after an initial bout of generosity, available resources shrink.
I also worry about what we do not see. The men and women who may relapse into addiction because of social isolation or because they face an uncertain future. Farm workers and those who are restocking our grocery stores or do essential work in hospitals or drive our buses and trains. Those who come out of the prison system and suddenly find themselves without any viable prospect of a job because now they are competing with hundreds of unemployed workers. Will they recidivate?
So, yes, I get it when I hear people talk about the post-pandemic world. I want that too, but I know for a fact that as we look forward, many will be stuck in the rearview mirror. Vaccine or no vaccine, their lives have changed forever and taken a turn for the worse.
I propose that we forge ahead with strategies to support the most vulnerable and adversely impacted. We need forward looking legislation that creates new opportunities for the jobless, provides proper and affordable care for individuals recovering from COVID, bolster rental and utility assistance programs for the housing insecure, expand food aid programs and invest in initiatives that bridge the digital divide.
These are just a few examples of policies we need to help those hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic. Our plans to rebuild and renew cannot leave the most vulnerable members of our community behind. We all deserve to look ahead with hope and resilience because, as our beloved Congressman John R. Lewis once said, “We are one people with one family.”