Since the first case of COVID-19 in the United States was announced, about 38.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment. That’s more people than there are living in New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island combined.
The global pandemic has laid bare the economic fragility of millions of American families. In the last few decades, the American middle class has been hollowed out. For millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the American Dream — the ideal that in this country anything is possible, and everyone can achieve the security of a good life — is nearly unattainable.
For decades, anyone taking a clear-eyed look into the economic well-being of our middle class would have seen the warning signs. But this public health crisis has uncovered an even deeper, more fundamental crisis for all to see. The United States is simply no longer the country of opportunity that we once were.
Well before our nation was struck by a global pandemic, millions of Americans aspiring to reach and remain in the middle class were being left behind. The idea of social mobility, moving from poverty into the middle class and beyond, is what made America exceptional on the global stage. But when we look now, out of 82 global economies the United States ranks 27th in terms of social mobility. And, out of seven of the most advanced economies in the world, the United States has the highest level of income inequality, and that gap continues to grow. The top 20 percent of households hold nearly 80 percent of the wealth, with the top one percent holding more wealth than the entire middle class.
COVID-19 has exposed the human cost of our country’s economic inequality. The evidence is overwhelming, especially for communities of color. In New York City, the areas with the highest rates of positive tests have an average income of less than $27,000 per year. In Chicago, where Blacks make up a third of the city’s population, they account for 72 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In my own state of Rhode Island, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our Latinx community, accounting for 45 percent of positive tests, but representing just under 16 percent of the overall population in the state.
This disparity is a stain on the soul of our country. After we develop a vaccine and finally put this pandemic behind us, we will need to confront the truth that we are now one country for a small group of people who control the wealth and power, and a much different country for everyone else. And with each passing year, this disparity grows.
Our democracy will not survive if it continues to fail a majority of its people. We need to undertake serious structural change in this country to once again make America a nation of real opportunity. This task is urgent and requires us to work together like never before.
As we move forward, it is critical that we take whatever steps are necessary to wipe away the disparity of opportunity that has taken hold of our country. In 2002, Congress established a National Commission to study the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and make recommendations on ways to improve our national security. Today, nearly 95,000 Americans are dead as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — about 32 times the number killed on 9/11. We do not yet know how many will die as a result of economic insecurity — whether through a lack of access to health care, paid time off, or some other disadvantage that comes with being a working American.
But throughout our nation’s history, whenever grave crises have exposed even greater failings in our society, we have responded with bold action. When the Great Depression hit, President Roosevelt’s Second New Deal led to the creation of Social Security, which to this day helps millions of our most vulnerable Americans. Confronted by staggering poverty and persistent racial injustice, President Johnson launched the Great Society, creating historic protections against racial inequality, and enacting antipoverty initiatives without which today’s opportunity gap would be even wider.
Congress must do the same today. There is a clear need for an independent, bipartisan body — a National Commission to Restore the American Dream — empowered to study the root causes of our crisis of opportunity and articulate a bold strategy for bridging our country’s economic divide right now. Given the enormity of this crisis, the complexity of its underlying causes, and our nation’s political division, it’s critical that this National Commission neither be limited in scope nor subjected to the partisan whims of political power brokers. It must be truly independent and capable of following the facts toward the solutions we need.
It is tragic that it took an unprecedented public health crisis for many to realize that the failure to address the causes of economic inequality has life-and-death consequences. The greater tragedy would be allowing this moment to pass without addressing the ways our country’s economic divide made this deadly disease even worse, and taking whatever steps are necessary to make certain this never happens again.
David N. Cicilline is US representative from Rhode Island.