Income inequality has dried the tinder. Could virus be the spark?
There's a silent crisis simmering beneath the surface hidden by the horrors of COVID-19. It’s a clear and present danger just as real as the virus that has sickened and stolen the lives of thousands of people around the world.
That crisis is income inequality.
The United States has danced for decades around the issue, inviting destiny to eventually fuel a violent eruption pitting the poor versus the rich. That day of reckoning may be approaching at an accelerated rate due to the pandemic. We may finally bear witness to the breaking point that turns average, law-abiding, hard-working citizens into rebels taking up arms against their fiscal oppressors.
According to the Economic Policy Institute research, between 1979 and 2007, paycheck income for those in the richest 1 percent exploded while more recently from 2009 to 2018, the bottom 90 percent had wage growth of just 6.8 percent, compared to 19.2 percent for the top earners. The portion of Americans aged 55 or older who are still working increased from 30 percent in 1989 to 40 percent in 2018, in part because stagnating wages are hindering savings and wealth accumulation.
The rich are getting wealthy while the middle class and poor continue to struggle even during times of economic booms.
This isn't an effort to chastise the super-rich. Nobody should ever be punished for being successful. This is simply an ominous warning of what may come. I’m a firm believer in capitalism and the bountiful results of sweat equity. America was built on the backs of geniuses illuminating its brilliance through entrepreneurialism. However, we are wading in deep waters. The current state of this unconventional work stoppage leaves the economy overexposed and vulnerable to a perilous collapse.
And Americans aren’t in a good position to weather it.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 stashed away, while 45 percent have nothing saved. By some estimates, half of the middle class and almost all the working poor will be out of money before April 1. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently that Americans will most likely have to continue staying at home and practicing social distancing for “at least several weeks."
The president has run the gamut of predicting the outbreak would quickly dissipate, to endorsing strong social separation efforts, to now targeting Easter Sunday as the target date to lift many worker restrictions.
No business, regardless of how successful, can survive months, or even weeks, without consistent cash flow. An overwhelming percentage of small to medium size business owners will be literally laid to waste. Restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, nail salons, pizza joints, and all forms of local retail will come crashing down. Millions will be left jobless.
What will happen when oil tanks can't be refilled, electric bills can't be paid, and mortgage and rent payments come due? We’re talking about a fiscal apocalypse.
In response, White House and Senate leaders reached a historic deal shortly after midnight Wednesday — a $2 trillion relief package that would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367 billion program for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. It is the mother of all bailouts, but it may amount to a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. At some point, we may have to weigh the consequences of leaving our homes and confronting this virus against the millions of lives the economic shutdown are destroying. We are teetering on the edge of economic suicide.
Historically, Americans have been resistant to government handouts. Maybe that attitude is changing. In some cases, multiple generations of families have become dependent on regular government payouts to make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 50 percent of adults receiving food stamps work, they just don’t earn enough for food.
Politically speaking, the bigger the bailout the more magnanimous our politicians apparently think they appear. It may take multiple bailouts, resulting in trillions added to our national debt, in order to restart a comatose economy. After a certain period, it will become impossible to sustain.
I do not envy the decision Washington will be pressured to make within the next few weeks. Either liquidate the economy by making monstrous monthly payments the norm, eroding the very structure of capitalism, in the process exploding the national debt, or revving up the economic engine far too soon, potentially putting millions of Americans in the direct path of a virus that can kill a significant number of them.
The trigger setting off social anarchy might be as small as a viral molecule on the tip of your finger.
Lee Elci is the morning host for 94.9 News Now radio, a station that provides "Stimulating Talk" with a conservative bent.
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