For many years, I have written a column for the annual César Chávez holiday on March 31 to share some insights into the life of this Mexican American leader and the farmworker union movement he helped propel.
This year, however, COVID-19 compels a shift in focus to what I am sure César would have drawn our attention to.
First is the extreme COVID-19 risk to farm laborers. They have to keep working to put food on our tables. Harvesting in the fields does not allow keeping the 6-foot safety distance nor afford the prescribed frequent hand-washing. These are the poorest of the poor, risking their health and their families’ wellbeing for pathetically low wages and bad working conditions. People who are sick will work as long as they can out of necessity
Even worse if the field workers are undocumented, not uncommon these days, Congress’ $2.2 trillion relief bill excludes them, even if they pay federal taxes.
This exclusion applies to all undocumented workers, many who do the most menial labor that we depend on. Some 4 million undocumented immigrants pay federal taxes voluntarily. They don’t have Social Security numbers but use a special number, assigned by IRS (an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, ITIN). The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that, by 2015, more than4 million people annually were using ITINs to pay $4.35 billion in net taxes.
That’s strike one. Strike two is that, even for workers in general, who have a Social Security number, individuals cannot collect the $1,200 rebate allocated by Congress, unless they have filed a tax return this year or last. Economists at the Economic Policy Institute, another non-profit, non-partisan think-tank, calculate that roughly 30 million people, including senior citizens and those with very low incomes, don’t file tax returns.
The poor are hurting, and they are the least able to support themselves in this crisis, especially in “sheltering-in-place” communities: hotel workers, janitors, restaurant servers, cooks, lawn-care folks, construction workers. They are most likely to have their hours cut or be let go. They need economic relief urgently.
The $2.2 trillion package supports businesses (big and small) and the upper and middle classes disproportionately better than people on the bottom. The legislation makes no sense economically and, in my view, is immoral. The legislation helps grievously exacerbate poverty, expanding the have and have-not cleavage in America, which is worse than it has been since the Gilded Age. It is in the nation’s self-interest, even if that is the only measure, to help poor people during the pandemic.
And the kids suffer enormously. With schools shut down, children whose main source of meals (and sometimes their only source of healthy food) will go hungry, putting their health in greater jeopardy.
Another example of the class divide is that wealthier students will have computers handy for on-line education, and their parents will have the knowledge to help home-school them. Poor kids, on the other hand, lack the same opportunity and often come from homes whose families do not have the education or facility with English to help them. The schools are giving them bags with books and assignments since they don’t have laptop accessibility. This will mean an inferior education during these troubled times for poor children.
The class dimensions of COVID-19 are stark. It was mainly brought to the United States by people who could afford the luxury of international travel; but it will be the poor, who cannot afford that kind of travel, that will bear the brunt of this pestilence.
Not only must we pitch in now as individuals and groups to help those most in need, even at our personal sacrifice; but we also must hold our federal government accountable for its cold-hearted legislation that callously heaps more and more suffering on the backs of poor people. That’s the kind of mercy and justice César would have wanted.
Editor’s Note: James Harrington, the author of the above guest column, is founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He worked with César Chávez in Texas for 18 years.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows James Harrington. Credit for the photo goes to the United Nations Global Agenda conference of 2019.