June 28, 2020

Why We Cannot Go Back to Normal

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By Mayor Ras J. Baraka

We have often referred to this precarious yet defining COVID-19 period as our ‘Noah Moment.’ This is a time to reset, reorganize, change and to get our society in alignment with our humanity. However, we were sadly mistaken.  The disgraceful, cold-blooded and reprehensible murder of George Floyd amidst a global COVID-19 pandemic is truly that defining moment for our Nation.  At this time, America is fighting two pandemics; one we have been fighting for a few months and the other we have been enduring for over 400 years.  We have shocking news; we cannot and will not go back to the way things were.  People all over our Country have had enough and are currently protesting the very injustices that have gone on for far too long.   This is due to American cities being wrought with inequity bound together by weak strands in an outdated system that has continuously and consistently fallen short of its promises. This is in fact the very reason why the greatest victims in this COVID-19 pandemic are Black and Brown  and the very reason why men and women lay dead from police brutality. What this time has done is viciously pull the covers off America’s not-so-hidden secret. It has unearthed the vulnerabilities of a system that protects some Americans but exposes many more to the elements of poverty, uncertainty, blatant inequality, and death that is sadly based on race, national origin and class. Not even halfway through 2020, this has truly been our year of clear vision.

COVID-19 has exposed the cracks in our foundation, but George Floyd’s death was the dynamite that caused the foundation to explode.  What is left are shattered yet resilient communities across our Nation fighting for a New America.  As a virus has been taking advantage of weaknesses inherent in our system, America’s bruised and beaten communities have reached a breaking point that we all should have seen coming. This breaking point is a direct result of consistent data that bears out the uneven impact it has had on communities like Newark and gives basis to the outcry that is coming right now from communities of color. Today, Newark is a predominantly Black and Brown city like many urban communities across our Country. We are also home to a city of immigrants, many who are still first and second generation. However, a third of our city lives in poverty and about 75% of our residents are renters with approximately half spending at least 30% or more of their income on rent. COVID-19 came to our city and bombarded the frail gates held together by the faint promises of democracy and dreams deferred. This pandemic has forced us all to put protections in place that should have already been in place and begin to close the gaps on the inequalities that are ripping this country apart.  Where we once had a digital divide, we seemingly found technology and resources for children who previously attended school systems where they barely had books. Our public school system to date has given more than 9,000 Chromebooks to families in need. The local cable company, Altice, extended free Wi-Fi to families to ensure that they could participate in distance learning. We found innovative approaches and funds at every level of government to fill in gaps for those experiencing economic insecurity like our essential and frontline workers. We also extended and strengthened enforcement around earned sick leave and family medical leave. We also told employers that they had to make provisions for those needing to stay home to take care of children that could not go to school or find a way to allow people to work from home when they could not go to work.

The cost of living has skyrocketed for years and wages have basically remained stagnant.  This coupled with a lack of affordable housing for those in need has alarmingly and disproportionately impacted communities of color.  Nationally, there are over a half million homeless individuals in the United States. In 2019, Newark had approximately 2,000 (2,214) homeless persons identified through the 2019 Point in Time Count, approximately 25% (335 or 15% by PIT Count) of which are “unsheltered” either due to not qualifying for shelter payment, severe mental health or drug abuse issues that prevent successful sheltering, or chronic homelessness as a result of refusal to enter sheltering.  During this crisis, the City of Newark launched a program to offer mass COVID-19 testing to its entire homeless population, the first in the entire state of New Jersey. The testing began at an airport hotel with a $1 million investment in rapid, short-term housing for Newark’s most vulnerable residents. That initiative was designed to get residents without addresses in safe quarters to help slow the person-to-person COVID-19 spread among those living outdoors and the people with whom they come in contact. The immediacy of this situation forced us to pull the most difficult to house off the street and in a matter of weeks, we had housing for them and three meals a day with the help of federal aid. This is something that should happen anyway and should remain after this is over. There needs to be increased funding and real support for America’s homeless, difficult to house and those in transition.

Every day, residents are making difficult decisions and with the current state of our Nation, this may have to continue.  Our entire world is impacted, and it is unclear what lies ahead as our nation grapples with our new reality.  Currently, many are faced with protecting their health and risking their lives to feed their families.  This is unacceptable.  In the early stages of the pandemic, New Jersey state leadership passed A3848, a law that protects workers from being fired that have been diagnosed with COVID-19.  What about those that must take care of their loved ones who are diagnosed with the virus?  New Jersey’s paid sick leave law provides a minimum of five sick days for almost all full-time workers but what happens if you have to quarantine for 14 days?  For a worker attempting to self-quarantine for two weeks, five days is far from enough.  Mid-March, the federal government responded and passed a law to provide an additional 10 paid sick days for many workers affected by COVID through the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act.  However, the new law leaves out many people who are not covered.  We should move to increase the number of paid sick days during statewide health emergencies to ensure that people can care for themselves or for family members and prevent the spread of the virus.  Much further, Family Leave should also be extended to families who must stay at home with their children.  

Subsequently, citizens need proper access to healthcare.  More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance.  Almost 20 million Americans have lost their health coverage and economists believe that 30% unemployment is possible by fall.  If people do not have jobs, how can they get healthcare should they contract COVID-19?  Economists further predict that health insurance premiums will likely increase by 40% in the next year due to less payers and more who need care, and the eventual collapse of private health care insurance.  What does this mean for millions of Americans?  It means it is an opportune time to fight for universal health care for all and a subsequent march toward bringing our prescription costs under control.  We need an organized national health care model that will not have us batting for testing kits on the open market at $100 to $150 apiece, putting our survival rate in the hands of profiteers and speculators.

Our economy is even more stressed when we think about how this has an impact on our small businesses who are the backbones of communities.  The US Census Bureau released data last week showing the following:

• Nationally, 74% of the small businesses surveyed said they had revenue declines because of the coronavirus.  Only 17% of small businesses report having enough cash on hand to maintain business operations for three months or more; 48% only have enough for four weeks or less.

• 75% of small business requested assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program; only 38% had already received it.

Further, in Newark the majority of businesses are desperately trying to find a way to survive this and some will never open again as they cannot get loans from big financial institutions and the smaller lending institutions just don't have the resources to help.  Locally, we created an emergency fund aimed at providing financial relief to eligible Newark-based 501(c) (3) non-profit organizations that provide a direct service related to COVID-19 and/or have expended extra funds in creating new programs or in expanding existing programs to the benefit of Newark’s local economy and community.

• An up to $2 million investment in a small business emergency fund with grants up to $10,000 for qualified businesses.

• A partnership with property owners to provide safe housing for the homeless.

• A $1 million investment in the “Live Newark” program to provide down payment and rehabilitation funds for Newark homeowners.

• $750,000 arts investment to support the local community of artists and cultural organizations.

• Tax relief to building owners with stores and other small business tenants who have lost their ability to pay rent because of COVID-19 with the tax savings passed along to the tenants as a rent reduction.

While the efforts are helping, it is a small drop in the bucket.  The US Small Business Administration should continue to find real revenue to get to mid-sized and smaller lending institutions; get funds to non-profits to help seed and scaffold small local businesses; and not just for payroll.  These businesses represent families.  Many are sole proprietors and they hire local residents.

We realized that families that were in distress would be even more so now as the economy began tanking.  When Mark Cuban got on national media talking about how we needed to make sure we lifted up workers and citizens because what’s the use of opening up an economy that no one had any real wages to support, we knew we were heading for a new place.  In Newark, we have been following the lead of cities like Stockton to begin to stand up a pilot for Universal Basic Income as a step up out of crippling poverty and a hand to struggling working families that needed a boost to take care of basic necessities and to avoid a paralyzing emergency.  Then came COVID-19.

While Congress passed legislation to get money directly into Americans’ hands to support families that have been upended by the crisis, we long knew about the persistent wealth gap in our country. We have known about the poverty and unemployment that plagues so many communities and we failed to act on the scale that we could have.  For the past year, Newark has examined whether providing ongoing cash to residents could be a solution for equitable growth, and if so, how we should do it.  We recently released a report and the need for Universal Basic Income (UBI) has never been stronger.  The time is now. So many people need money and resources—and are looking for help to survive.

More than ever before as we march and protest for liberties and freedoms in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, this must be our time to act.  This has to be our time to restart and to reassess as we can no longer afford to go back to normal.  Our old ‘Normal’ is what pushed us to become the world’s epicenter of deaths and systemic racism.  We have the greatest concentration of the world’s wealthy including the best engineers, scientists, and doctors and we have the most organized and funded military infrastructure but this could not save 100,000 lives or protect an innocent black man from the right to due process instead of death.  This must stop.  New Jersey is one of the hardest hit states of COVID-19, second in the country only to New York for the number of total reported cases.  Newark is the largest city in that state and yet, we are bearing the brunt of this pandemic not just in our senior homes but in our two and three bedroom apartments crowded with families with very little or no room to quarantine.  This is not surprising, when we look at the struggles our country faces daily and what our system has failed to provide.  We have been looking at both pandemics and looking at its impact on ourselves as individuals.  Yet, this moment in time requires a clear vision as it is less about us as individuals and solely about our collective future.  It is more about how we react to the effects and impact on our communities and the systems that have failed us in so many ways, and the ideas that stand in the way of our inevitable change.

What is happening in American cities today is but an exaggeration of what we have faced daily but have always been in our American crisis.  The truth is our generation has lived this radicalized inequity every day.  We deal with deep poverty daily, segregated by both race and class.  We have already been poor and have no access to health care. We looked to the emergency rooms as our primary care physicians and when they closed, our access became that much more precarious with people dying in our homes three and four times more this year than any other.  We deal with a crisis of unemployed and underemployment and poor quality food at high prices; we succumb to sickness and disease at greater rates than state and national levels. We have a crisis of wealth, and the wealth gap in New Jersey is one of the highest in the nation and our crisis is ongoing.  We have shown the world the ugliness of two Americas the same way Bull Connor showed the viciousness of Jim Crow; and when we get past the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to have the courage and fortitude to deal with the one that plagued us long before the first case we saw in Newark on March 14th.