One of the many facets the pandemic has revealed to us is our nation’s tortured and conflicted position around labor and the value of work. On the one hand, workers have been labelled “heroes.” For a while, healthcare workers were cheered nightly in many cities. We glorify, as NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge notes, the “essential worker who continues to hang in there for others and themselves even as things become dangerous.”
But this country also employs seemingly indestructible narratives about the inherent worth and lack of motivation of low-income people. After all, if they were really valuable, wouldn’t they be worth more in cash terms? This justifies an ideology where the few feel themselves entitled to extract as much as possible from the many, for as little as possible. That’s the extractors’ right—and even responsibility, where shareholders are concerned. And, of course, there is also a strong racial component to this, even if (as of 2018) about 43.4 percent of those in poverty are white, as can be seen in such common tropes as welfare queens that use racist stereotypes to portray people in poverty as grifters. This cultural anchor drags many workers under in the best economic times, and these are not the best of times.
It’s this frame we see playing out in the US Senate as senators argue over how little they can safely do to support those who are unemployed in our devastated economy through no fault of their own while still having a shot at the next presidential election. Hauling out the old tropes about workers just waiting for the opportunity to sleep on the job has been effective in the past, after all, so why not now?
Both of these narratives are on display as Congress struggles to develop successor legislation to the CARES bill. Key provisions of that bill are now expiring: Last Friday, the federal eviction moratorium (which covered properties with federally guaranteed mortgages) expired and the $600 a week boost to unemployment insurance expires this Friday. And all of this happens against a backdrop of a rising death toll from the pandemic and an ongoing national anti-racism uprising that’s provoked a disturbing federal law enforcement reaction with more than a whiff of authoritarianism.
How did we get here? In May, the US House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, but Senate Republicans sat on the bill, introducing their counterproposal, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act (the text of which, albeit written prior to the bill being renamed, can be found here) only this past Monday—after key provisions of the CARES Act began to run out.
The details of the proposal can be read in this Washington Post article. Some aspects of the bill make sense: the $1 trillion bill includes more money for a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program, another round of $1,200 per taxpayer cash payments, and about $100 billion for schools. Some measures do not make sense, but are not surprising, such as a proposal for a “liability shield to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits,” a top priority of many corporate lobbyists.
And then there are some very important things that the HEALS legislation fails to do. Not only does the bill fail to give supplemental payments to essential workers (i.e., the item that gave the “HEROES” bill its name), but, more critically, the bill includes no extension of the federal eviction moratorium in the CARES bill and no new money for state and local governments. The former is all but certain to fuel a growing eviction wave, and the latter could increase unemployment by millions (Pew reports that already state and local governments have laid off 1.5 million workers) and lead to major cuts in nonprofit contracts.