The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion U.S. workers have taken a powerful hit. Any true recovery must include them.

A going-out-of-business sign in the window of a New York department store in May. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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From March through mid-October, as covid-19 spread, the wealth of U.S. billionaires collectively increased some $931 billion — or nearly one-third. The very richest grew even richer as more than 225,000 Americans have died and tens of millions have lost work. The pandemic is not, as some expected, a “great equalizer.” It has exacerbated the cruel inequities of the U.S. political economy, preying on the vulnerable while plutocrats profited.

This juxtaposition exposed the falsehood in President Trump’s claim to have built the “greatest economy in the history of the world” and the delusion in his promise that next year will be the best ever.

As the pandemic forced the shutdown of much of the economy, well-positioned companies and monopolies — in online retail, the pharmaceutical industry, telemedicine, videoconferencing services — thrived. The net worth of some of the world’s richest people — including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who owns The Post) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — shot up. But others also profited.

Executives, board members and big investors in drug companies — jockeying for government grants in the rush to develop a coronavirus vaccine — were rapacious. As shares soared on hints of progress toward a vaccine, the Boston Globe reported last week, insiders cashed in more than $1.3 billion in stock (compared with just $74 million over the same period last year). Consider what this means: Taxpayers cover the initial investment costs and expenses of tests, development and distribution of a vaccine. Executives capture the profits if the treatment is successful and pocket obscene sums along the way even if trials fail. Put another way, taxpayers cover the risk, while executives and shareholders reap the rewards.

Workers across America have taken a powerful hit. As of this month, more than 23 million are receiving unemployment, even as Trump celebrates a “recovery.” As of August, some 12 million had lost employer-based health-care coverage when they lost their jobs. As of Aug. 31, some 98,000 businesses — primarily small businesses — had closed permanently, according to one survey. One in 6 renters are behind on their payments. Moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures delay what will be a flood of expulsions.

In this pain, people of color, women and the young have suffered the most. Disproportionately employed in “essential” jobs or positions that required their physical presence, their ranks have suffered outsize numbers of illnesses and deaths. Without union support or adequate health and safety protections, many were forced to work even when employers refused to implement reforms. Women have been disproportionately affected by the absence of day care or in-person schooling and have been forced to leave jobs to care for their families. As The Post recently reported, “low-wage jobs were lost at about eight times the rate of high-wage ones” at the height of the crisis so far.

Meanwhile, Trump celebrates a recovery he promises will be the best ever. But to the extent that a recovery is underway, it reflects the same old divisions. For affluent workers, the downturn is largely over: white-collar jobs are mostly back, the stock market has rebounded.

For lower-wage workers, the suffering continues, particularly since Republican policymakers have blocked action on further pandemic assistance. For months, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republican senators have resisted passing substantial relief. They claim to worry that people with continued unemployment benefits won’t return to work — ignoring the reality that millions of jobs simply aren’t coming back. Republicans oppose aiding states and localities racked by rising costs and a collapse of tax revenue, preferring that services be cut further.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden, at least, understands that the country has to “build back better” and promises to push for renewed pandemic assistance, plus big investments in infrastructure and sustainable energy.

Our post-pandemic reality will require more aid. Millions of service and retail jobs — at malls and shops, restaurants and bars, gyms and concert halls — aren’t coming back. Domestic manufacturing has to be revived as global supply lines prove vulnerable. Entire industries — airlines, oil from fracking, automobiles, commercial real estate — may never to recover as businesses turn to more remote work and reduce travel. Our public health system has to be re-conceptualized and rebuilt. Basic economic rights — the right to a decent job, health care, child care, affordable housing, public education, retirement security — have to be guaranteed.

For most Americans, recovery will require taking on the pandemic profiteers and correcting the obscene inequality of today’s economy. New taxes on the wealthy — a millionaire’s surtax on income, a wealth tax, a sensible estate tax — are essential if critical public services and infrastructure are to be rebuilt. Revived antitrust efforts and a crackdown on pervasive corruption are necessary for markets to work. The pandemic exposed the destructive and cruel fault lines of this economy. A true recovery can’t take hold until they are addressed.

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