Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Walking On Thin Edges

There was a post I shared on Facebook the other day, how we're all in the same storm, but not in the same boat. About that.

Recently I had an interesting discussion with a stranger on FB. She seemed unable to imagine how people could be in financial trouble due to COVID-19 job loss. At one point she even said maybe this situation "would teach people not to spend-spend-spend.”

I tried to explain that millions of people live paycheck to paycheck without much cash reserve. Some folks are even starting to skip the mortgage or rent. Fine, she said, they can skip a couple months now and pay it all back later. No, I said, that just means they’ll be permanently two or three months behind. She then got a little testy, demanding to know what people were doing with their government stimulus checks. After all, a family of four has $3,400 coming.

Yes, I said, they do. IF they have direct deposit set up, if the IRS got the child payments right, if they didn't used H&R Block or TurboTax, and if they haven't owed taxes for the last couple years. Otherwise, they are still waiting on a mailed paper check. But if they did get their money, great, problem solved. Now what do they do NEXT month?

At that point my little friend went silent. Which brings me to my point. The guys protesting with flags, guns and disdain for social distancing may be jackasses. But they are symptoms of a growing problem that no amount of encouraging TV commercials and inspirational Facebook memes can banish.

Of course this virus is real. The CDC estimated the 2018-2019 flu season accounted for @ 61,000 American deaths. COVID-19 is catching up, with @ 49,000 deaths in the US alone.

But the fact is, people are scared. Not only of the virus, but also of going broke and losing their ability to survive. We’re out of work, more of us keep going out of work, and the goalposts for when we might go back to work keep moving. End of April, middle of May, maybe June? Some voices say we could be locked down until November or maybe next year. Lives aren’t worth rushing to reopen the economy.

As I tried to illustrate in a previous post, “the economy” is not a bunch of rich CEOs. It’s us. It's regular people who have bills and debts and no income, and are powerless to do a damn thing about it. State unemployment systems are overloaded, underfunded, understaffed and often weeks behind.

Many people are more financially secure, but what about them, too? Businesses still have leases, loans and overhead. A $349 billion small business loan package, cautioned from the beginning as unwieldy and problematical, ran out of money in two weeks. How many businesses - and jobs - will disappear?

How many Americans can we put out of work and tell them they can’t come back … indefinitely? Is government assistance really going to catch and support us all? For how long?

During the Great Depression we had job programs to give people some paychecks and pride. Workers now are told to stay home and do nothing. You and I may be fine with that, but it's a special hell to a lot of folks, who feel like they’re forbidden to do anything to stave off impending shipwreck. All they can do is watch the water rise.

Not everyone sitting out this virus is okay. For many, their jobs are gone, their money is dwindling, and with it goes their means to survive and support their families. They see the distant storm, but they worry about the looming icebergs of financial ruin even more.

We’re all in the same storm. But please remember, many sit in sinking boats.

Peace, love and unicorns and don't forget to wash your hands.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Thinking Too Many Thoughts ....

When I need to get something off my mind, I write. Buckle up, gentle readers.

The risks of restarting the economy in the middle of an epidemic are real. We can't just tell our at-risk people, We're going back to normal, you guys are on your own. But I don't see "the economy" as some monolithic conglomerate of rich guys in penthouses far above the fray. The economy is us.
It's everybody trying to pay the rent, the mortgage, their electric bill and propane. It's car payments and health insurance, doctor bills and vet bills, automobile repairs and the refrigerator just quit working. It's buying groceries and pet food, paying the horseshoer and buying hay and that emergency dental appointment. It's every person out there trying to apply for unemployment and it's those who, for varieties of reasons, don't qualify.

The people who provide those missing jobs are also the economy. They pay leases or mortgages, utilities and insurance, permits and licensing, loans and payments, purchase equipment and supplies, and some of them are trying to cover payroll for absent employees.

Not everyone is able to embrace staying at home as a time to get cozy and creative. When people run out of money, people go hungry and homeless.

There is an argument that says the at-risk people could just self isolate, while everybody else goes on about their lives. After all, 80% of the population won't even show symptoms, or if they do, it will be mild to moderate. Right? Some even say what we really need is some good old-fashioned herd immunity.

Well, let's look at that. First, an estimated 100 million people are diabetic or pre-diabetic. Another 100 million are estimated to have high blood pressure. Some 23 million have autoimmune diseases and @ 25 million have asthma. Studies say about 121 million, nearly half of adult Americans, have some form of heart disease. And chronic kidney disease and liver disease each account for a total of 117 million people. Even presuming half of these numbers can be condensed into people with more than one condition, this is a lot of folks.

The at-risk population is not limited to old retired farts. People with underlying conditions are part of the workforce. They hold jobs, they provide services, they own businesses and they raise families. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and your family members. They are you.

We have seen time and again, this virus loves groups of people. Whether it's a wedding, a choir practice, a meat packing plant or an aircraft carrier, it thrives in close quarters situations. This virus doesn't have to sicken all of us. It just has to sicken enough of us. Then businesses and institutions will shut down again.

I guess what I'm really saying is, whoever you are and whatever your perspective is on this thing, do what you have to do, as well as you can do it, but don't look for easy fixes. There aren't any. When South Dakota has 1100 diagnoses of Coronavirus and 518 of them work at the same plant, there's a problem. And when 10 million Americans are newly out of work, there's a problem.

Unfortunately, I don't have any witty suggestions for what to do about it. I don't envy anyone, at any level, tasked with trying to figure it out. We just have to remember that we really are in this together. Let's not beat each other up, when all anybody really wants is to get back to some kind of normal.

Peace, love and unicorns and remember to wash your hands.