The store clerk, the GrubHub deliverer, the individual experiencing homelessness. These folks and others in marginalized communities were at-risk long before COVID-19. They were at-risk of having no chance of attaining the American Dream. However, it took a pandemic for local and national leaders to redistribute resources to the residents on the brink of financial insecurity.
At a time of immense change, we ought to ask if this temporary trend of redistribution can become more permanent. How can we redistribute wealth, property, and opportunity so that the American Dream becomes a reality regardless of your zip code and station? As we are seeing in real time, redistribution can foster greater public health, increase economic security, and weave a stronger social fabric.
For all it’s upside, there’s a glaring barrier to redistribution — it requires sacrifice. That sacrifice is more than rationing your consumption. It’s also more than just donating a slice of disposable income. It’s about fundamentally altering the playing field by giving something up.
Though COVID-19 is a scourge that must be defeated as quickly as possible, it is also an opportunity that ought not be wasted — it is an opportunity to address our need for redistribution head on. Two months ago, whoever thought Republicans like Tom Cotton would be backing efforts to directly cut checks to Americans? Two months ago, who could have imagined the Bay Club becoming a homeless shelter? Two months ago, who would have thought GoFundMe would become one of the most visited sites as people rush to support small businesses and struggling community members.
This seemingly temporary tilt toward reallocating capital does not have to end. In the coming months, it’s on us to consider which of these COVID-induced remedies should become permanent fixtures. After all, these “extreme” solutions are exactly the sort of drastic measures we required before the pandemic. It’s no secret that our society has become increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots. Income inequality is up. Homeownership is out of reach for most. High-quality education is hard to come by. The list goes on. On nearly every metric, there’s been a growing gulf between those in the top 1% and everyone else.
I’m among those for whom redistribution will require sacrifice. For me, COVID-19 is primarily just an inconvenience. I’m sheltering in place in relative comfort. Meanwhile, others are suffering from immense mental, financial and familial stress. In the same way, I’m among those who have generally benefited from the distribution of resources and societal set-up before the pandemic. In short, I won the life lottery that’s generated far more “losers.” By nothing of my own doing, I grew up with the elements associated with opportunity and upward mobility: a stable family, housing security, well-funded schools, internet access and digital savvy and access to affordable health care.
These elements do not have to be out of reach for so many Americans. Our response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that we are collectively capable of drastic action. The current sense of urgency among the public and policymakers alike should not end. For one, we should make certain regulatory relaxations permanent. For example, limits on telemedicine have typically benefited special interests. Removing these barriers long-term can help more Americans access health care. Second, the government should persist in using its police power to ensure the general health, safety, and well-being of society by making space for everyone to experience housing security. This significant step reflects the reality that homelessness did not become an emergency when COVID-19 started. Third, it’s time for a basic income. A small monthly stipend to Americans on the edge of financial security will help society in general get through turbulent times. Sadly, COVID-19 will not be our last black swan event — more unanticipated and severe events are ahead and likely with increasing frequency. A basic income can ready us, especially the most vulnerable, for the uncertainty that’s ahead.
Redistribution is a four-letter word for many, but, when done correctly, it is a way to make us all better off. COVID-19 has exposed just how divided our society has become. For instance, it has become clearer than ever that convenience for a few – perhaps in the form of a Grubhub-delivered burrito – requires the inconvenience of many. Workers are forced to expose themselves to sickness and often low wages. Ideally, we will end COVID-19 in the short term. But we ought not stop the long-term effort needed to redistribute opportunity.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.
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