7 ways 2020 exposed America

Biggest lesson of all: It must be fixed.

SOURCERobert Reich

If America learns nothing else from these dark times, here are 7 lessons it should take away from 2020:

1. Workers keep America going, not billionaires.

American workers have been forced to put their lives on the line to provide essential services even as their employers failed to provide them with adequate protective gear, hazard pay, or notice of when COVID had infected their workplaces. Meanwhile, America’s 651 billionaires – whose net worth has grown by over $1 trillion since the start of the pandemic – retreated to their mansions, yachts and estates.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sheltered in his 165,000-acre West Texas ranch while Amazon’s warehouse workers toiled in close proximity to each other, often without adequate masks, gloves, or sanitizers. The company offered but then soon scrapped a $2 an hour hazard pay increase for warehouse workers, even as Bezos’ wealth jumped by a staggering $70 billion since March, putting his estimated net worth at roughly $186 billion as the year came to an end.

2. Systemic racism is literally killing Black and Latino Americans.

Black and Latino Americans account for almost 40 percent of coronavirus deaths so far, despite comprising less than a quarter of the population. As they’ve borne the brunt of this pandemic, they’ve been forced to fight for their humanity in another regard — taking to the streets across the country to protest decades of unjust police killings of their community members, only to be met with more police violence.

Among Native American communities, the coronavirus figures are even more horrifying. The Navajo Nation has had a higher per-capita infection rate than any state but can’t adequately care for the sick, thanks to years of federal underfunding and neglect of its healthcare system.

Decades of segregated housing, pollution, lack of access to medical care, and poverty have left communities of color vulnerable to the worst of this virus, and the worst of America.

3. If we can afford to bail out corporations and Wall Street, we sure as hell can afford to help people.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to insist we can’t “afford” $2,000 COVID survival checks for Americans. But the latest coronavirus relief legislation doled out over $220 billion to powerful business interests that could instead have been used to help struggling working families.

Another way of looking at it: The total cost of providing those $2,000 checks ($465 billion) is less than half the amount America’s 651 billionaires added to their wealth during the pandemic ($1 trillion).

4. Health care must be made a right in America.

Even before the pandemic, an estimated 28 million Americans lacked health insurance. After it struck, an additional 15 million lost employer-provided coverage because they lost their jobs. Without insurance, a hospital stay to treat COVID-19 cost as much as $73,000. Remember this the next time you hear pundits saying Medicare for All is too radical.

5. Our social safety nets are woefully broken.

No other advanced nation was as unprepared for the pandemic as was the United States. Our unemployment insurance system is over 80 years old, designed for a different America. We’re one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t provide all workers some form of paid sick leave.

Other industrialized nations kept their unemployment rates low by guaranteeing paychecks during the pandemic. But Americans who filed for unemployment benefits often got nothing or received them weeks or months late. Under new legislation they get just $300 a week of extra benefits to tide them over.

6. The Electoral College must be abolished

Biden won 7 million more popular votes than Trump. But Biden’s margin in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin totaled just 45,000. Had Trump won these three states instead, he would have gained 37 more electoral votes, tying Biden in the electoral college. Under the Constitution, this would have pushed the election to the House of Representatives, with each state delegation getting just one vote. Even though Democrats have a majority in the House, more state delegations have Republican majorities. Trump would have been reelected.

The gap between the popular and electoral college vote continues to widen. The Electoral College is an increasingly dangerous anachronism.

7. Government matters.

For decades, conservatives have told us that government is the problem and that we should let the free market run its course. Rubbish. If nothing else, 2020 has shown that the unfettered free market won’t save us. After 40 years of Reaganism, it’s never been clearer: Government is in fact necessary to protect the public.  

It’s tragic that it took a pandemic, near-record unemployment, millions of people taking to the streets, and a near-calamitous election for many to grasp how broken, racist, and backwards our system really is. Biggest lesson of all: It must be fixed.  


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.