Why Do We Only Care about Poor People When The Stock Market Tanks?

(Note: Originally written on 3/26, edited to add a few more data points)

A month ago the media was focused on Biden vs. Bernie and politicians were doing whatever it is they normally do – which is absolutely nothing for the millions of Americans who are homeless, can’t cover a $400 emergency expense, 78% who live paycheck-to-paycheck, 27 million Americans without health insurance, 30 million Americans without paid sick leave (a quarter of the workforce), saddled in six figures of student loan debt, etc.

A month later the stock market tanked 30% (the fastest drop in history), and all of a sudden we’ve managed to rush in a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that includes direct cash transfers of $1,200 to individuals making less than six figures, among other measures like 2 weeks paid sick leave, suspending student loan payments, and increasing unemployment benefits.

These policies would have been utterly unthinkable a mere month ago as conservatives and conservative Democrat (“moderates”) would’ve laughed them out the room. But now that the financial portfolios of the rich have been wrecked (the top 1% own 56% of the stock market, top 10% own 81%), the conservatives have finally suspended their market Darwinian ideology to permit legislation that actually helps poor people (along with the private jet industry and the U.S. airline industry who’ve spent 96% of their free cash flow on stock buybacks over the last decade, but we’ll put that cronyism aside for now). The policies of Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang who these same conservatives would’ve dismissed as “too unrealistic” or “too socialist” are now suddenly in vogue.

All of this leads one to wonder:

  1. Would any of this legislation helping individuals have passed had this pandemic not wrecked the financial portfolios of the wealthy, and jeopardized the solvency of corporations?
  2. Are we only able to make bold changes in the midst of an extreme crisis that also affects the rich?

When the stock market is rising and the rich are getting richer, politicians seem to think all is well. In fact things are so seemingly well that conservatives’ most passionate issue shifts to reducing the taxes they’re paying on their enormous profits, funded via reducing “wasteful” government spending – like eliminating the pandemic response team and dismantling the welfare state. Given that increased wealth is correlated with reduced empathy, this utter disregard for the struggling during economic booms isn’t entirely surprising.

But now that the coronavirus pandemic has hurt everyone from the rich to the poor – even locking down entire cities, all of a sudden we are seeing empathy and an urgency to help the suffering. NYC has started offering free meals, California has offered free groceries, and San Francisco will rent 7,000 hotel rooms to house its homeless population.

Does it really take a pandemic to solve homelessness?

What happens when this pandemic is over? Will we suddenly go back to not caring about the struggling poor and caring more about reducing the taxes on our hedge fund profits?

#2 is the bigger question here, and my greatest worry. It should not take a crisis to fix the enormous deep-rooted problems in our society. We should not be satisfied with a status quo where 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense and 78% live paycheck-to-paycheck, where people waste enormous amounts of energy inflicting irreparable damage to the environment commuting to jobs they don’t like that aren’t even useful to society.

If we are only able to make make meaningful change and progress when faced with a crisis, then absent such crisises, we are the frog slowly getting boiled to death and not even realizing it.

It’s time to start being proactive instead of reactive, ambitious instead of complacent, making progress instead of accepting mediocrity.

Trying to get back to the status quo isn’t enough, because the status quo wasn’t working for everyone.

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