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The Coronavirus’s Harsher Reality for the Most Vulnerable

The pandemic is creating new burdens and exacerbating existing ones for Americans at the economic margins. Government has the obligation and the opportunity to ease those burdens.

children boarding a school bus
School closings are having a ripple effect on the lives of vulnerable families.
No crisis in decades has challenged the role of government to do more for the poor than the coronavirus pandemic. No one knows the lasting impact it will have on society. What we do know is that dealing with it presents challenges and opportunities for how governments operate and protect all citizens, but especially the most vulnerable ones.

The private sector, its actions in some cases mandated by government, has canceled or suspended concerts, pro sports games and other large-crowd events. It has curtailed flights, closed businesses and sent employees home, which creates new problems for the country's most fragile workers. As a nation we must take this time not only to deal with the spread of COVID-19 but also, equally importantly, with poverty and with income and wealth inequality if we are ever to be safe, healthy, just and great again.

The federal government and some state and local governments have been slow to react. Nevertheless, we welcome proposals to make testing free and widely available, provide paid leave, and get food to families in need. But as with all such things, the devil is in the details, and they have yet to be worked out. And as we all know too well, government is not always efficient at rolling out new programs or processes.

Many of the actions already being undertaken by state and local governments to slow the pandemic's spread are well intentioned, but they create big hardships for those at the bottom of our economy. Take, for example, what happens to families when public schools are closed. In my state of Georgia, where the governor has ordered all schools to close until at least March 31, about a million public-school students — 60 percent of the total — are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches, and many also receive free or reduced-cost breakfast at school. For many of these students, the breakfasts and hot lunches they receive in school are their most nutritious meals of the day — in many cases their only meals. By closing schools in the name of public health, we exacerbate the problems of poor nutrition and hunger that already plague this population and make these students more vulnerable to the virus.

Some schools are preparing bag lunches for students and parents to come by to pick up. But many students depend on school buses to get to and from school. When we close schools and park buses, we not only exacerbate transportation issues but also create more complex problems with which low-income families must deal. Many part-time drivers who have no health insurance get laid off, adding to the number of at-risk individuals in communities. And for parents who still have jobs but can't work from home, finding and paying for child care adds immeasurably to the stresses on low-income families.

Another problem with the mass closing of schools is the assumption that students will be able to complete their assignments and semesters online. This ignores the reality that tens of millions of students from underserved communities are without computers and broadband at home. The superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools announced that her system's cable partner has agreed to provide free Wi-Fi to families in need. But how this might work logistically is not so straightforward. Free Wi-Fi is one thing; wiring rental properties and apartment buildings — homes not owned by most public-school families — is another.

Beyond those issues, there is the larger problem of the nature of work in America: Far too many people are unemployed or underemployed, and don't have access to benefits like paid family leave or sick leave. As of 2018, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 28 million people in the United States did not have health insurance. How will these families care for themselves or family members if they were to contract the virus? There simply is no justification for the refusal of 14 states to expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. If Georgia alone were to expand Medicaid, 500,000 more people would be covered, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

And if workers who do have jobs are laid off as the economic impact of the pandemic intensifies, how will they be able to feed their families? For that matter, who is to say they will have jobs to return to after the pandemic subsides?

There are numerous other examples that speak to the harsh effects of COVID-19 on under-resourced individuals and families, ranging from its impact on homeless populations to the fear that the virus will ravage seniors confined to crowded living facilities like nursing homes. We also know the lack of access to fresh foods is a leading cause of residents of underserved communities having more compromised immune systems, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

All of these issues place additional burdens on governments at all levels and raise important legal and ethical questions: Should cities and counties shut off water and other utilities for those behind on their bills when hand-washing is of paramount importance? Will landlords be allowed to evict tenants and banks be allowed to foreclose on homeowners who fall behind on their rent or mortgage payments as a result of this crisis? We must answer these and other questions with creativity, compassion and equity.

Leaders of state and local governments can do much more than just run efficient administrations. They can advance programs like the First Source Jobs policies I wrote and saw enacted 30 years ago by the Atlanta City Council I served on, requiring companies doing business with the city to hire locally for entry-level jobs and pay prevailing wages. They could do a much better job administering workforce training funds and seeing to it that residents who finish training get sustainable-wage jobs. They could work together to stem the rise of predatory lending. They could enact new policies to encourage affordable housing.

In 2005, in his famous "Make Poverty History" speech, Nelson Mandela declared that "as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest." Governors, mayors and other public officials who possess bully pulpits should heed his admonition. The coronavirus pandemic calls us to account for our obligations to one another as a civil society.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.


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