After 28 days I think I have settled into a routine.
I wake up, walk downstairs, move my laptop from the sofa to the countertop, start a pot of coffee, and apply eye drops to prepare myself for a long day in front of a screen. On weekends I let the sun in and play music that on any other day would complicate a day full of conference calls. I check in with my aging parents who in most cases text me first. I Facetime and Houseparty with my girlfriends in the comfort of a headscarf or charcoal mask and laugh until my soul feels soothed. In all the spaces in between, I sit deep in thought imagining the variety of possible outcomes for the residents — individuals, families, and businesses — of the city of almost 20,000 that I am responsible for leading through this crisis. It’s like playing chess with an imaginary partner who morphs between saint and villain without notice.
My life right now is certainly uneventful, but if I said I didn’t appreciate the predictability, I’d be lying. The truth is that these days feel nostalgic yet strange. Nostalgic, not because I have experienced days like these but because I have longed for days like these: still, patient, and in proximity to my children. Strange, because even in physical closeness there’s emotional distance and in stillness, there’s insatiable urgency.
While I accept these paradoxes as a natural consequence of this moment, I am unwilling to accept that things will be okay when we return to normal.
I enjoyed the trappings of my life pre-pandemic. The world responded to my every need or whim, provided I could afford it. In fact, I felt like it was my civic duty to participate in our local economy in the ways I did. You can understand, then, how the present imperative to pause sits in conflict with my version of normal. It conflicts with all our versions of normal. It is why we are audacious enough to believe that we can spend our way to recovery without fundamentally changing the policies that underpin our society.
Just over two weeks ago, Congress passed the CARES Act, a historic and unprecedented $2 trillion spending bill to provide relief to individuals and small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill provided direct payments to individuals making up to $99,000 per year, increased funding for child nutrition and SNAP programs, suspended interest rates for student loan borrowers, expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits, and created loan and loan forgiveness programs designed to encourage small businesses with fewer than 500 employees to retain employees. Not even a week following the opening of applications for the signature Paycheck Protection Program, US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin signaled that the $350 billion allocated for it would be insufficient and requested an additional $250 billion to increase the fund amount by over 70%. Even with the level of funding approved, millions of people remain excluded from receiving relief.
On a local level, cities large and small are devising strategies to help their residents. Solutions run the gamut from setting up mobile food pantries to distributing computers to halting evictions to engaging philanthropy to provide direct payments to individuals to funneling millions of dollars into economic development incentive funds. Like those offered by the CARES Act, these local programs are similarly strained. In my city, for example, we have announced two programs that were effectively ineffective the moment they began. The first is a $1 million relief fund for which we have solicited input from residents on how it can best be used. I am simultaneously happy that we can do our part to help our community recover from this crisis and deflated because I know it simply is not enough. Six days ago, we opened an application for residents to apply for a $100 grocery gift card. The criteria were minimal: applicants needed to be 18 years or older, a resident of the city, and have experienced unemployment or loss of wages due to COVID-19. 638 people have applied and only 86 are eligible due to residency requirements. To put this more bluntly, we know that 638 people need help and as a local government, we can only help less than 15% of them.
At every level, the need is far greater than what our governments are able (or willing, depending on your perspective) to satisfy. Yet doing nothing is not an option. We — yes, I am indicting even myself — join the chorus to legitimize the hashtag and prove that we are truly #inthistogether by attempting to remedy a moral and structural deficit with money alone.
What we really need, however, is a transformational reset.
Even the most community-minded among us knows that there is tremendous value in a thriving local economy. We are loath to imagine a scenario that does not afford our favorite entrepreneurs to return post-pandemic and in doing so, we acknowledge however reluctantly the necessity of a market economy. I believe that if we are to envision a future that optimizes the market economy after this destruction, we must allow progressive ideals to shine. After all, it was the conflict between the two that created space for small businesses to thrive. What possibilities might exist if we were able to establish a conscious interplay between them?
Right now, a return to what we knew as normal would mean negotiating over who has a right to recovery. It is returning to the means-testing (and lack of agreement over it) that stalls good policy and encourages moral hazards. It is a return to the scarcity of quality, affordable healthcare that supported an uncontrolled spread of an untreatable virus. It is a return to a reliance on technology to simultaneously meet middle-class needs and address an overworked middle-class’s desire for convenience by making the middle-class an unwitting employer of itself. In that normal, we will martyr the people and businesses that painfully weathered these dark months and claim those who did not as victims of some sort of corporate Darwinism. It’s the kind of normal that sees calls to examine why more Black people die of the Coronavirus as just another game of identity politics. It would be a normal where lending for mortgages and small business shrinks because the industry now knows our collective tolerance for economic upheaval is frighteningly low. The only difference? A $2 trillion spit-shine with a fabric mask.
Instead, what if our new version of normal guaranteed food and shelter through a universal basic income? Or if universal healthcare supported the healthiest labor force our nation has ever seen? What if the money that previously satisfied student loan payments circulated in local economies as consumer expenses or, alternately, as entrepreneurial endeavors? Can we imagine a reality where addressing the sociopolitical factors that lead to disparities in health outcomes is viewed as a just intervention? Or where technological innovations helped provide services better, faster, or more efficiently instead of capitalizing on the attractiveness of “the gig” to provide for one’s basic needs? What if the security offered through progressive policies created a climate that nurtured a new generation of homeowners, entrepreneurs, and a more skilled workforce? That’s a normal we can — quite literally — live with.
I have always embraced the promise of progressive policies. As we approach our fifth week at home, I have grown more interested in knowing the security I feel while the rest of the world is shut down is not unique to families like mine. We’ve seen what throwing money at a problem does. We take off our shoes, place our laptops in separate bins, throw away the last half of our bottled water, and wave to our loved ones from afar to board planes to our homes in Charleston, Parkland, Aurora, or El Paso and call it normal. Absent substantive policy reform we will only continue to “throw good money after bad.” This $2 trillion (and counting!) investment can be remembered two ways — either as the largest government-funded reelection campaign expenditure or the catalyst for the most consequential policy reforms of this century, rivaled only by FDR’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. As Americans, only the latter should be acceptable.
We can return to normal or we can be okay. We cannot return to normal and be okay.
Candace Hollingsworth is the mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland.