The enhanced federal unemployment checks have expired. But tens of millions remain unemployed, even with the economy recklessly reopening in places. The eviction moratoria, if they were put in place at the beginning of the pandemic at all, are being lifted. And the landlords are proceeding to evict.
Piles of belongings are appearing on sidewalks and curbs. There’s a new name for them: eviction cairns. Cabinets stacked on mattresses stacked on vacuum cleaners. They can’t go where the tenants are going. There isn’t room, because the tenants are moving into the spare rooms and onto the couches of family and friends, or into residential motels — if they’re lucky.
Some are sleeping in their cars. Others are sleeping in shelters. Still more are sleeping on the ground. They have been, in every sense, tossed out. Tossed out of the economy. Tossed out of their homes. Tossed out like refuse.
This has happened for many reasons, chief among them the absence of anything resembling a functional social welfare state, without which the American working class dances on the razor’s edge of poverty, and those already living in poverty dance on the razor’s edge of death. The desperation of millions is advantageous for a few: slumlords, predatory lenders, and average employers who prefer labor cheap and workers compliant.
This smaller class is also fiercely resistant to furnishing the revenue, in the form of taxes, necessary to build and maintain the universal public programs — cradle-to-grave services that in practice establish basic needs as social rights — that mitigate desperation and keep people away from the edge. The state’s subservience to this smaller class, whose interests automatically gravitate toward austerity, deregulation, and privatization and are thus in direct conflict with the interests of the rest of society, is the ultimate answer to the puzzling question of how a deadly virus has resulted in eviction cairns.
But in a more concrete and immediate sense, Congress is responsible. Enhanced federal unemployment benefits, which were keeping and even lifting millions of people out of poverty, expired in late July. The Senate simply blew past the August first rent deadline without renewing them. Then they spent the first two weeks of August continuing to fail to renew them, as Republicans and Democrats debated how much and on what terms it would be acceptable to slash them. Unable to reach a compromise, now the Senate has gone on recess until September. Luckily, it’s warm out. Makes sleeping in your car more comfortable.
Senate Republicans deserve the lion’s share of the blame on this occasion, of course. They’re the ones insisting that an extension of the previous $600 a week federal unemployment benefit, which was the only thing keeping millions of unemployed people from complete financial calamity and a domino effect of apocalyptic consequences, is “unaffordable.” They’re the ones talking about saving for a rainy day in the middle of a category five hurricane. Their proposal for the next coronavirus relief package is nothing short of sadistic. One almost gets the impression that they’re consciously trying to create a fear of destitution so pervasive that it overrides the conflicting fear of COVID-19 that’s keeping the economy partially shut down.
But the Democrats don’t get to be the heroes here. Decades of embracing neoliberal pro-corporate policy — of entrenching and normalizing the logic of privatization, deregulation, and austerity that benefits the smaller capitalist class at the expense of everyone else — has led us to this impasse. It has hollowed out our public sector, eviscerated and imperiled what existed of our social safety net, and emboldened an increasingly brazen reactionary Right.
The Senate is shamelessly abandoning the American working class in the middle of this pandemic and economic shutdown. But really it’s only an extension of an earlier and more profound abandonment, which will take a political revolution to reverse.