Working poor will suffer the worst health and economic effects of COVID-19


Past pandemics have disproportionately hurt the working poor. The COVID-19 outbreak is proving to be no exception. Those with the lowest paying jobs and the fewest financial resources are most vulnerable to infection and most susceptible to the adverse economic effects of the pandemic. The federal government could do more to help them. 

The poor and working classes have always lived in less healthy conditions than the rest of society. In the 19th-century cholera epidemics ravaged the slums of American cities. 

The well-to-do, who could afford to live in more salubrious suburbs and towns, often blamed the poor for their plight, especially immigrants whom they accused of choosing to live in disease-inducing squalor. Once those in power realized that the water-born contagion could infect “nice” neighborhoods, they paid more attention to sanitation.

Today America’s poor do not live in the squalid conditions of early industrial cities, but they cannot easily follow CDC guidelines on social distancing. Many live in small, often crowded apartments. Most have low-paying hourly-wage jobs. 

If they don’t show up for work, they don’t get paid. To get to their jobs, they have to take mass transit, putting themselves in closer contact with more people and, therefore, at greater risk of infection.

Unlike their white-collar counterparts who can telecommute, hourly-wage earners often work in retail where they must interact with the public. 

Lack of financial resources exasperated by the pandemic will also hurt the poor. Many hourly-wage earners work in the restaurant and service industries, which will experience high layoffs.

Those lucky enough to keep their jobs live pay-check-to-pay-check. They cannot afford to “stock up on necessities” and may lack the storage space for extra items even if they could. 

Thirty percent of Americans don’t have a credit card, so they cannot order groceries online and have them delivered. They must shop more frequently for food and other necessities, again, putting themselves at greater risk of infection.

Those dependent upon foodbanks will find many of them closed for lack of volunteers. In Silicon Valley, California, 19 food pantries serving 2,400 families have shut their doors

School closings also disproportionately affect hourly wage earners, who cannot afford childcare. If they are lucky, Grandma and Grandpa can step in. However, since children may be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, babysitting may be life-threatening for the elderly.

Many parents, especially single mothers, face the unenviable choice of caring for their children or earning enough money to feed them. 

Besides creating childcare nightmares, closing schools also adds to food insecurity. Low-income parents rely on school lunch programs to supplement their children’s nutrition.

Many districts have made lunches available for pickup, but preparing them requires low-paid staff or volunteers, who may face the same hardships as the people they are feeding. Recipients might need access to a car to pick up the food.

So, what is the federal government doing to mitigate the economic effects a well as the health risks of the pandemic for the most vulnerable? So far the president has taken the same approach to COVID-19 that Herbert Hoover did to the Great Depression, increasing credit, cutting taxes, and meeting with business leaders to elicit their voluntary assistance. Known as pump-priming, this approach presumes that putting money in at the top, through corporations and businesses, will trickle down to workers. 

It did not work during the depression, and it won’t be sufficient to help the working poor today. Will bailed out corporations really use the money to pay their employees, or will they spend it on stock buy-backs and executive bonuses? Having been burned in the 2008 Wallstreet bailout, lawmakers are demanding recipients adhere to strict guidelines protecting workers and consumers.

Other than extending unemployment benefits, the only measure likely to get immediate help to ordinary people is a per capita cash payout under consideration by Congress and the White House. A one-time measure of that type, however, will not go far. A great deal more needs to be done.

Thomas R. Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University where he teaches World Civilizations. His most recent book is, “Violent Extremism: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.

Tags economy Employment Labor relations Poverty United States labor law Working poor

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video