The time has come for progressives to exploit a crisis for political gain.
As the novel coronavirus sweeps across America, it isn’t tanking an otherwise healthy country; it’s exposing our society for the wobbly tower of inequity and brutishness it already was. Our prisons are full of the harmless and elderly, our jails jam-packed with the innocent—all now sitting ducks for the disease. Our streets are crowded with the unhoused, and thousands more a day lose their homes to eviction. Our health care system is a colossus of greed and waste, and workers labor through illness while still living paycheck to paycheck. The virus finds these seams in society and rips them open.
As is often the case, what’s punitive in America is even worse in Texas. Our prison population of about 140,000 leads the nation, and our county jails are needlessly stuffed with inmates who overwhelmingly have not yet been convicted of a crime. We have the highest uninsured rate in the nation, and swaths of our sprawling state are nearly devoid of doctors or hospitals. Protections for tenants and workers are either feeble or, thanks to decades of Republican rule, illegal.
Let us, however, indulge in the bright side.
In response to the crisis, local governments—and maybe even the GOP-controlled state—are enacting sensible and long-overdue policies. In Collin, Bexar, and Harris counties, sheriffs are urging cops to issue citations for petty offenses rather than filling up the jails. Justices of the peace in Travis and Bexar counties have banded together to halt eviction proceedings. Multiple utilities—including the publicly owned Austin Energy—have pledged not to shut off the water and electricity of those experiencing financial hardship. And, to the delight of millions of Texas schoolchildren, the state has waived the dreaded STAAR test.
All these measures are temporary solutions to ongoing problems. Progressives should demand that each measure be made, in one form or another, permanent.
Jailing people on minor charges can lead to the financial ruin and even death of the legally innocent, and criminal justice reformers have long called for the practice to end. If it’s safe to do so during an emergency, it’s safe to do so indefinitely. Similarly, the STAAR test can be cleanly abolished. As Education Austin President Ken Zarifis told me Monday: “In the future, we can only hope the state puts the same educational priority on teaching and learning as on the coronavirus and eliminates this draconian test altogether.”
Evictions and utility shut-offs are a bit more complicated—no one is making housing and power free any time soon. But instead of routinely shutting off water and electricity as a punishment for poverty, we should look at increasing public utilities like Austin Energy and expanding payment assistance. And in Texas, evictions are a game rigged in landlords’ favor. Tenants here generally cannot withhold rent even if repairs go undone, and they’re often saddled with exorbitant late and hidden fees that they cannot pay. As Texas cities grow less and less affordable, evictions are becoming a crisis: In Bexar County, lawsuits jumped 34 percent from 2011 to 2018, while they spiked 11 percent in Travis County. We can either strengthen tenant protections, or we can let evictions continue to fuel our growing homelessness crisis.
Progressives should also demand more. State leaders should immediately drop their opposition to municipal paid sick leave policies, which could have shielded hundreds of thousands of Texans at the outset of this crisis. To avoid depressed voter turnout and long voting lines like those we saw earlier this month, our May runoffs should become an all-mail election. (Then, to improve our state’s abysmal voter turnout rates, we should expand mail-in ballots for all future elections.) While we’re at it, the state may as well expand Medicaid too.
In Texas, these are mostly far-fetched demands. But that says more about our state’s leadership than it does about the policies themselves. COVID-19 is a concentrated crisis that sheds light on the slow-motion disaster of being poor in our state. Once the virus passes, there’s no reason to let the powerful return peacefully to business as usual.
Critics will say that raising such demands is taking advantage of a crisis—and it is. The coronavirus, and the economic nosedive it’s spurring, is an opportunity. As Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s incoming chief of staff, famously said in late 2008, with the economy in fresh ruins: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Or, better yet, heed Naomi Klein. For decades, the political right has turned all manner of crises into opportunities to eviscerate social welfare and line their own pockets—what the author calls “disaster capitalism.” Now, the Trump administration is considering measures like slashing payroll taxes, threatening the future of Social Security. But things don’t have to go that way.
“It’s possible for crisis to catalyze a kind of evolutionary leap,” Klein said in a video posted by The Intercept Monday, citing the birth of the New Deal from the Great Depression as a model for what we might fight for today. “The end of this story hasn’t been written yet.”
Call it disaster progressivism. The Texas left may face steep odds, but now’s the time to try.
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