Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says we are now living in a pandemic-caused economic recession that may crater into a full depression before it ends. Already, after just four weeks of sweeping business shutdowns and worker layoffs in Sonoma County, we are seeing the vulnerabilities, imbalances and injustices that lie at the core of our economy and society. In medicine, these are called pre-existing conditions.

Thousands of Sonoma County workers and their families that were living paycheck-to-paycheck are now overwhelming local food banks. They have no money for next month’s rent. As many as 20,000 people have not only lost their jobs, but they are losing their employer-sponsored health insurance, too. The minimum-wage service workers that propel our premium wine country tourism industry now form the longest lines at the local unemployment offices.

Before COVID-19 attacked us, there were already 49,500 men, women and children living below the federal poverty line here. If some economic forecasts are correct, and our unemployment rate reaches 22% or higher, another 25,000 people will drop into poverty where they will find food insecurity and will risk becoming homeless.

Our economic imbalance here is now vividly obvious. The top fifth of local wage earners have been taking home 60% of the county’s total income. The bottom fifth took home just 2.5%, according to state Franchise Tax Board statistics. Worse — and we don’t need to read it here to know it is true — our Latino households’ incomes are 39% below white households.

Yes, we have a virus pandemic to conquer, but scientists promise us there will eventually be a vaccine and a cure. Science can’t fix our cruel and unjust economy. Only we can do that. This global crisis is providing us the opportunity to make a better society.

The goal should not be just to reopen the economy we had before. We need universal healthcare for all. We need a guaranteed living wage and income for all families. We need an end to the obscene hoarding of wealth by the very few at the life-threatening expense of the many. COVID-19 is now showing us that the inequalities of our wealth have become the inequalities of our health.

Alas, even Gov. Newsom or our own county leadership of elected officials and corporate captains cannot build a more just and resilient society. We are part of a national crisis where we can be grateful for at least one thing: there will be a national election in November. It will serve as a historical referendum on what kind of future Americans want for themselves.

Sonoma County voters alone can’t change the country’s failed health system, but we can vote for candidates who want to get rid of the model we have now that is controlled by private insurance and drug companies.

We can do much here to bring more wage equity to the households of our childcare providers, hotel housekeepers, service clerks, teacher assistants, farm labor and others. But in November, we should also vote for candidates that support major tax reforms that guarantee more ‘take home’ pay for working families and the kind of wealth tax that Sen. Elizabeth Warren supports.

When we vote, we want to hear candidates (Biden, Trump and all others) who support what President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1936: “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.”

Finally, this pandemic-caused economic collapse is proof that it is our planet’s ecosystem that is in charge of things, not our economy. We’ve been living in a society that thinks the reverse is true. That is why we have a global climate crisis. That is why a sub-cellular microbe (virus) can rise from a Chinese street market and halt the entirety of all the world’s markets.

What more powerful reminder could we possibly need?


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