Threats to our national security are made worse by the increasing income inequality being ignored throughout our country.
At a yearly budget of $732 billion, the United States spends more on our military than the next 10 nations combined – to include China and Russia. And yet, this military strength is impotent in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The notion that pandemics represent a national security threat is a foregone conclusion. What is less agreed upon is the fact that income inequality, when combined with such events, represents a national security challenge of its own.
In the United States, the top 20 percent of families made more than half of all U.S. income in 2018. The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorest families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. A recent report indicates that HALF the nation cannot afford a $400 emergency. Much has been written about the United States being the only developed nation in the world to fail to contain the spread of COVID. Part of that failure is due to significant levels of income inequality, especially when compared to that of other developed nations. Income inequality in America is the highest of all the G7 nations (U.S., U.K., Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany, and France). The United States also has the second-largest poverty gap among wealthy nations – Italy is the worst. Is it any wonder, then, that the coronavirus enacted the worst toll on these two nations? The problem is, these extreme levels of income inequality have repercussions beyond the domestic challenges they pose.
Even before COVID, we knew that pandemics were especially harsh on the poor. Years ago, studies of the 1918 Spanish Flu determined that the poor are the most affected by the first wave of an outbreak, largely because their economic circumstances prevent them from behaviors known to lessen the impact of an outbreak.
Why is this? First, without a home to quarantine into, the homeless are notorious spreaders of the coronavirus. Additionally, those without health insurance (i.e. the poor) are most likely to avoid seeing the doctor, which makes testing, confirmation, and contact tracing all but impossible. This challenge is being made worse, as half of Americans rely on their employer for health insurance, while more than 50 million people have filed for unemployment. Of those that have lost their jobs, the most vulnerable have been the retail and service industries, which employ the most low-wage workers. This lack of health insurance makes matters worse for those who contract the virus, where the cost of treatment is running $35,000. If half the nation can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, suffice it to say that $35,000 is out of their reach as well. There are already reports of potential deaths from coronavirus due to a lack of insurance.
As a result of skyrocketing unemployment, millions of Americans are unable to pay rent, and moratoriums on evictions are tenuous at best. More than 30 percent of adults in Florida reported that they missed June’s rent or mortgage payment, and half of those reported that this missed payment was due to the loss of employment. Although Florida’s governor extended a moratorium on evictions, he waited until the 11th hour to make such an announcement (for the second month in a row). Despite a bill in Congress to provide $75 billion in assistance for homeowners, and $100 billion for renters, Republicans in the Senate have vowed to kill the bill. Calls for rent strikes are increasing across the country.
Those lucky enough to still have their jobs, deemed “essential workers” in many cases, are predominantly low-wage food industry, custodial staff, grocers, and of course, Amazon. These low-wage workers are most at risk, as they are being told they must go to work on a daily basis, often without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Amazon workers have called for a strike against working conditions, and grocers and caregivers are worried about a lack of PPE.
So what you have are millions of people who are financially unable to quarantine at home, either because they need the paycheck itself, or the health insurance that comes with employment. Those who have already lost their jobs are more likely to be evicted and homeless, and the lack of insurance will delay their visits for testing and contact tracing.
With almost 140,000 deaths, it would be naïve to consider this pandemic as anything but a national security risk. Income inequality in the United States has only exacerbated a healthcare, housing, and insurance crisis brought on by the pandemic. Addressing income inequality may have saved thousands of lives. A more responsive Congress, willing to pay people to stay home (as many European nations have), also may have saved thousands of lives.
National security cannot simply mean the threat of terrorist groups, cyber attacks, or rogue states. To counter such challenges, the United States has spent nearly $5 trillion waging recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. And yet, the “unseen enemy” of coronavirus has killed more Americans than Vietnam, Korea, and the War on Terror – combined. The biggest threat to the day-to-day security for millions of Americans isn’t terrorism or a foreign power. It’s the fact that half of Americans can’t pay a $400 emergency expense, and 48 million more struggle to cover the cost of food. Another 8.6 million are considered the “working poor,” who live below the poverty line despite full-time employment. These working poor are clustered in certain occupations – retail, food service, custodial staff, and caregivers. The same “essential workers” that are prevented from staying home to combat coronavirus. Most of these workers make less than $10 an hour, and few are unionized, further preventing their ability to negotiate for better working conditions. As COVID spreads, these workers are at the center of the crisis – often without PPE, paid sick days, or paid testing.
After ignoring income inequality for so long, COVID is illustrating the need for a discussion about the choice between “guns and butter.” Despite the number of “guns” in the American military, the lack of “butter” has resulted in a larger national security threat than all of the nation’s wars for the last fifty years. Maybe we should do something about that.
Air Force veteran, writing about the intersection of domestic policy and national security, especially as it effects his home state of Florida.