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Pandemic Poverty: Ray Suarez on How COVID-19 Set Back Low-Income Workers in the U.S., Especially Women

StoryDecember 27, 2022
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A new series of video reports by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Intercept called “Insecurity” looks at women leaving the workforce, the impact of the expanded child tax credit, and the wave of union organizing during the pandemic. The series spotlights people navigating food, housing and healthcare insecurity — who are falling through the cracks of the social safety net in the process. We feature clips from the series and speak with the host, Ray Suarez, former PBS correspondent and longtime journalist and an author, and Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we end today’s show looking at some of the people falling through the cracks of the social safety net during the pandemic and how they’re coping. They’re the focus of a new series of video reports by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Intercept called “Insecurity,” that look at women leaving the workforce, the impact of the expanded child tax credit, and the wave of union organizing. Each day this week, a new report will be published, the series narrated by longtime award-winning journalist Ray Suarez, who will join us in a minute. This is a clip.

RAY SUAREZ: I am Ray Suarez. I’ve been covering the news for more than 40 years. It feels like just a moment ago I was anchoring an evening news program on the all-news cable channel Al Jazeera America. Before that, I had long tenures with the PBS NewsHour and with NPR.

When Al Jazeera suddenly collapsed, I shoved down my panic. I kept one eye on my dwindling bank balance and started to freelance, and kept another eye out for the next big thing. When I lost my job, my wife and I had to make some tough decisions, especially around the cost of healthcare.

For that and other reasons, I’ve become particularly interested in the burdens the pandemic and life in America itself have placed on people. So I’ve teamed up with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Intercept to tell the story of people on the frontlines, people facing different struggles.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the introduction to the new series “Insecurity.” One of the episodes this week focuses on Eshawney Gaston of Durham, North Carolina, working multiple jobs but still unable to afford to live on her own with her newborn son. This is another clip.

ESHAWNEY GASTON: I’ve done a lot of different jobs over the years. I’ve been in the healthcare care industry, nursing aide, in-home aide. I’ve been in fast food, McDonald’s, Burger King, Waffle House.

RAY SUAREZ: But none of those jobs have paid enough for her to have her own place. To survive, Eshawney lives with her mother and her son, who was born premature.

ESHAWNEY GASTON: My son came out with issues, so he has to see a lot of specialists, and we go to the doctors a lot. Trying to juggle being a mom, a job, it’s a struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by the host of “Insecurity,” Ray Suarez, longtime journalist and author, who’s also the host of the radio program and podcast called On Shifting Ground. Often in Shanghai, we’re lucky to have him in Washington, D.C., right now. Joining us from New York, Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. Her new book, coming out soon, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream. We last had her on with the late great Barbara Ehrenreich.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ray, why don’t you take it from those two clips we just heard, where you tell your own story, and then tell the story — well, have the women themselves telling their own stories, about pandemic poverty? What motivated you to do this?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when the crushing economic impact of the pandemic began, the government did step forward and try to put in some emergency provisions to cushion the worst of the blow, whether it was an amnesty on repayment of student debt, help with rent and mortgage, stopping people being ejected from their housing. There were attempts made, but part of the problem that we see across this series, with Eshawney, with Katie, with Lisa, is that these programs are not meshing with people’s real lives. They are insufficient to completely shield people from the worst impacts of the downdrafts in the American economy right now. And we illustrate how.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ray, we recently saw the new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics about life expectancy in the United States, a two-and-a-half-year drop in life expectancy since the start of the pandemic. And even though 2021 was supposedly an economic rebound, life expectancy continued to plummet. Your reaction to what the impact has been now on the American people of — not only of the pandemic, but the failures of our safety net?

RAY SUAREZ: You know, this is a perfect illustration of how these attempts to help people in need, brought about by the pandemic, just were insufficient, didn’t go far enough. In the case of the decline in life expectancy, one of the effects of the pandemic was to keep people out of hospitals, keep people from getting regular treatment for already-existing chronic conditions. So people weren’t getting their cancer screenings regularly. People weren’t getting colonoscopies regularly. The despair, the mental health problems that we saw during the pandemic often went untreated, so we’ve seen a spike in suicides. We’ve seen a spike in drug overdoses. And those are two big drivers, those deaths of despair, two big drivers of that decline in life expectancy for Americans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your series focuses largely on women. Could you talk about the decision to do that in the series?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the old cliché is that they hold up half the world. But, really, they were picking up a lot more than half of the burden. And we see in the first installment, that is available starting today, Lisa Ventura, a social worker in the New York area, and how an unseen part of this problem, something called administrative burden, falls so heavily on women, falls heavily on immigrant groups with perhaps less facility in English, less experience in navigating bureaucracies, that are sometimes set up just to make it really hard to get the benefits that American workers are promised as part of the social contract. So, women, it turns out, they may hold up half the sky, but, really, they carry more than half of the weight in a lot of these areas.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ray, let’s go to Lisa Ventura, who you talk about, who you profile in an episode of “Insecurity,” talking about the barriers in order to obtain social services, for everything from housing to food.

LISA VENTURA: Because we grew up on welfare and Section 8, there’s like this big recertification packet that you need to fill out for both. And it’s difficult, because, as a kid, we have to translate from English to Spanish, and I just had to learn how to do that, how to navigate that.

RAY SUAREZ: Lisa has dedicated her professional and personal life to wading through the social service bureaucracy. What she’s experiencing, the battle to obtain social benefits, has a name: the administrative burden. It’s all the paperwork and red tape that blocks people from the help they need.

AMY GOODMAN: Another excerpt of this excellent series called “Insecurity” that is done with The Intercept and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which Alissa Quart is the director of. Alissa, why don’t you elaborate from there, why Lisa is a part of this story, as well as the woman we’re about to introduce, Katie?

ALISSA QUART: Well, Lisa and Katie were contributors to the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. They wrote about their experiences during the pandemic. And that’s part of what at Economic Hardship Reporting Project do: We find these voices, develop them, edit them, support them economically, and place their work in mainstream publications, which we then co-publish.

So, I had found Lisa. She had never published before. She was experiencing this incredible burden, this red tape burden. You know, she couldn’t get services for various members of her family, and she was working for her clients, as well, as a social worker. And this is a lot of the invisible labor that women did during the pandemic, and do in general, that’s, like, unrewarded, unsupported. Child tax credit was supposed to help with that. It did for a while, and no longer, right? We know it was blocked. So, her story seemed to be incredibly important, just about what a lot of women had experienced.

Katie was another writer who came to us with her story about not being able to access therapy, psychiatry when she had mental health crises during the pandemic. And to me, she’s also a very profound example of what women, in particular, also suffered, where they couldn’t get, through Medicaid, through — on their insurance, therapy in general. It’s very costly and very rare to find a therapist. In fact, Katie found one therapist on her plan, on Medicaid, and was ghosted by that person. So, there’s a lot of struggle here. And we’re told constantly, you know, depression, anxiety are up, as Ray just pointed out. But we don’t really have the resources as Americans right now to get the help we need for our mental healthcare. So, that was a point I really wanted to make, and that was a story I wanted to develop. And that’s why we —

AMY GOODMAN: So —

ALISSA QUART: — we included Katie, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear Katie’s story in her own words —

ALISSA QUART: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — this clip from the episode of “Insecurity” focusing on mental health and healthcare, as you describe Katie struggling to find a psychologist. Katie Prout decides to do community outreach activities to help with her mental health.

RAY SUAREZ: But Katie found an outlet, and a sense of purpose, by helping people suffering from substance abuse.

KATIE PROUT: I would go down to the South Loop and hand out harm reduction supplies. And as I got to know people better and they would talk to me about their lives, people would also open up about their own emotional turbulence.

RAY SUAREZ: Through those conversations, Katie unexpectedly got some advice for where to find a psychiatrist that accepts Medicaid.

KATIE PROUT: I felt lucky to be able to find the psychiatrist when I did, but it was like a bitter kind of luck, because you shouldn’t have to need luck in order to get your needs met.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Katie Prout. Alissa Quart, you mention Medicaid. And many millions of people are going to fall off Medicaid in this next year. Talk about the significance of this and how it shaped so much of what Katie was dealing with during the pandemic.

ALISSA QUART: I mean, to be fair, she was on Medicaid and couldn’t access therapy. But it’s going to be much worse when people are being kicked off the rolls. And that’s happening, and it’s going to happen at greater levels. You know, we mentioned earlier the administrative burden. That’s the burden that was, by design, installed in many of social programs to prevent Americans from accessing things that they’re eligible for. So, for during the pandemic, people were able to access Medicaid. They made it easier. People could stay on the rolls longer. They didn’t have to recertify in the same alacrity. Now that’s all changed. It’s going to be back to trying to recertify. There’s going to be a wave of people who are losing their Medicaid. So, that’s going to add to these illnesses, mental health crises and other kinds of bodily health crises that will afflict people, so we should keep our eyes out for that.

And I guess the point of the film was, you know, the pandemic has a legacy for people. But there’s also hope. And we can get into that, too. There’s hope in the clip you just showed, with Katie finding hope in the theory of harm reduction. And actually, in helping other people, she helped herself. So, that’s one of the messages I hope “Insecurity” will give the viewer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to get back to Ray for a second. Ray, I think it was barely a decade ago, I remember covering some of the earliest protests for $15-an-hour minimum wage. And at the time, I was told by some of my colleagues in the media that’s a pie-in-the-sky dream to get $15 an hour. Today, $15 an hour is even, in many states, far from sufficient to be able to have any kind of a decent living. I’m wondering your view on how in some states still the federal minimum wage is the minimum wage, and what the minimum wage should be in this country for workers.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the living wage, as you note, is something that’s not paid in a lot of places. And our episode with Eshawney Gaston is a beautiful illustration of that. She was, at the time we came into her life, working two full-time jobs and not clearing $30,000 a year. And that kind of low-wage work, chronic low-wage work, makes her eligible for various kinds of programs — Medicaid, women with infant children WIC programs. She gets support for special needs for her boy.

But who’s subsidizing Eshawney Gaston? These are often called entitlements, these programs. And people resent it. And they talk about people who don’t want to work. Eshawney was working 80 hours a week. But those low wages being paid by her two bosses were being subsidized by the taxpayers of the United States. They were able to pay a wage that does not provide enough sustenance for Eshawney and her child, and the federal government makes up the gap. So, people who are buying the picture frames that she was packing at one of her jobs, buying the chicken sandwiches she was making at another one of her jobs, they’re being subsidized. Their cheap chicken soldiers and low-cost picture frames are, in fact, cheap for them to buy because the employers themselves don’t have to bear the cost of getting this work done. And we really have to look that right in the face. Who’s benefiting from chronic low wages? It’s not the worker. It’s not necessarily the public. I mean, you and I are paying the gap for Eshawney and millions of workers like her. Who’s being subsidized is the employer who does not have to pay a living wage to his or her workers.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, what gives Eshawney hope is obviously not the level of hours she’s working, the number of jobs that she has, but organizing, pushing for unionization, pushing the fight for $15, with a community activist group that she says she will devote her life to, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: It has given her a sense of purpose. It’s given her a crusade to become a leader in and find her own voice as a leader, rallying workers in these two — in the very low-paid fast-food industry to get union representation, which will help them pay for benefits, and also fight for a higher hourly wage. So, we see somebody —

AMY GOODMAN: The group called Raise Up the South.

RAY SUAREZ: And she is getting a sense of purpose, getting a political education, and also fighting to put food on her own table. It’s a very inspiring story.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Alissa, I wanted to ask you — we hear a lot about the “Great Resignation” in recent years and this paradox — on the one hand, there’s a labor shortage, and yet, especially among older workers, more and more people dropping out of the workforce. What has this series told you about this whole issue of the Great Resignation?

ALISSA QUART: Well, I mean, we have two instances: one person who did quit — and you’ll find out about that — she was burnt out, and another person, Eshawney, who could not afford to quit. So, I think the Great Resignation, we have to look at who is quitting and who isn’t. And she’s not quitting. She’s working whatever job she can get. And often the people who are leaving the workforce have to leave them to take care of their children.

So, I think the whole story that the Great Resignation is this radical moment, I mean, we like the story, but I think we should really look at why — who and why people are leaving, like who can leave and who can’t, and what, in the end, this will mean for us, because I think people like Eshawney, she’ll take what she can get, and she’s not going to be part of the Great Resignation because she has a son she has to take care of.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds, Ray. What you take from this?

RAY SUAREZ: That people who work hard and work always to make a living know what’s up, and the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that Americans don’t want to work hard.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ray Suarez, we want to thank you for doing this and all of your work over the decades, longtime, award-winning journalist, host of the new series by Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Intercept called “Insecurity,” launching a new episode each day, looking at pandemic poverty. And Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. Her forthcoming book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream.

A very happy belated birthday to Narmeen Maria. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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