We’ve witnessed this firsthand over the course of a generation. In the aftermath of 9/11, America launched into wars that have cost us thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, dramatically increased the size and scope of the surveillance state, and made America an unwelcome place for immigrants and Muslims. In 2008, during the Great Recession, our leaders came together to bail out Wall Street banks instead of the workers who had lost their jobs and their homes.
Today, months into a global pandemic shaping up to be the biggest economic and public health crisis of our lifetimes, we once again find ourselves at the edge of a political precipice.
The coronavirus has already robbed us of more than 70,000 lives in the U.S. and infected more than 1 million people. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment, and projections are expected to at least match that of the Great Depression.
The question now is how we’ll respond. Will we once again let fear and worry take over, and drive us toward choices that take us backward? Or will we rise to the calling of this moment, and in the face of an unprecedented crisis, demand that we replace the principles that define our society today, like inequality, with the principles of humanity and justice that will help us all succeed?
The coronavirus has exposed at a basic human level our inherent interconnectedness and shared vulnerability like never before. At the same time, the coronavirus inflicts suffering that intensifies the sharp edges of our country’s structural inequality and lays bare two deeply disconnected Americas. One seeks to escape the virus aboard private jets to shelter in sprawling vacation homes, while the other hopes they still have a job and the water isn’t turned off by morning. And the crisis is not only disproportionately hurting poor people. It’s also devastating black and brown communities, where people are dying at much higher rates.
The scale of the crisis before us may be unprecedented, but the underlying problems we’re facing are hardly new. The coronavirus has cracked open existing social and economic fragilities that have been festering for generations, due largely to a government whose policies have historically neglected so many of its people. This pandemic is now revealing, with painful truth and clarity, the high cost of their failure.
Millions of workers are unemployed and unable to access the health care they and their families need. Without paid sick days and family leave, workers have to make difficult decisions about whether to continue working despite illness or without childcare. About one-third of renters didn’t pay rent in April, and it’s likely to just get worse.
In this moment of crisis, we need a new kind of political leadership. The coronavirus pandemic that has brought unprecedented tragedy and devastation has also made clear our responsibility as a nation to push forward bold, transformative change.
As we face this crisis, the American people are not as divided as some would suggest. Large majorities of Democrats and Republicans support robust actions to fix many of the underlying problems that are causing so many people such pain in this moment. Political leaders all across the country, and most especially in Washington, must recognize that now is the time to move past rhetoric to building an America that works for all of us.
Luckily, many of our colleagues and political leaders are showing us a way forward. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., for example, recently unveiled the Essential Workers Bill of Rights proposal, which calls for hazard pay and universal childcare for nurses, grocery store clerks, city bus drivers and other front-line workers.
As a member of Congress, I worked with my colleague, Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., to introduce the P.A.I.D. (Providing Americans Insured Days of Leave Act) Leave Act to finally provide universal paid leave and sick days for all workers. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., introduced the Automatic BOOST to Communities Act, which would provide universal direct monthly payments to every person living in the United States — starting at $2,000 and then dropping to $1,000 until a year after the crisis is over. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., proposed a Paycheck Guarantee Act that would avoid massive unemployment by covering the payroll expenses of businesses until the end of the national emergency. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley released a Get America Back to Work proposal, which similarly proposes paying businesses to keep people employed.
To truly conquer this crisis and emerge stronger and better than before, we need an agenda that provides security and stability for each of us, starting with the people whom our society has routinely excluded from prosperity and relief. And in this moment, when so many of us are experiencing unrivaled uncertainty, we all must take action. It is up to us to galvanize our friends, family members and communities to take action against the corporate opportunism and harmful austerity that threatens to leave behind those struggling the most.
Together, we must demand the security we need to move through this crisis and recover in its aftermath. We must demand our political leadership act with integrity, care and concern for our communities.
That’s why we’ve come together, a congresswoman from one of the most diverse and vibrant districts in Massachusetts and the president of the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, to convene a group of table shakers, truth tellers and citizen activists committed to implementing an agenda that meets this moment not only at the federal level, but also in state legislative chambers, county commissions and city councils.
We must meet the current crisis, while also ensuring that we are prepared for whatever crises may come in the future.
Ayanna Pressley is U.S. representative for Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District. Rashad Robinson is president of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.