It is time to stop looking at the US economy from Wall Street

Standard economic growth measures ignore the economic precarity that the majority of American live in.

Food bank USA Reuters
Volunteers sort apples at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, in San Francisco, California, US March 16, 2020 [Stephen Lam/Reuters]

Crises have a way of turning existing cracks in political and economic systems into fault lines. They bring to light what has been hiding beneath the surface. This is why the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the most serious global health crisis in a century, has exposed the many pre-existing weaknesses of the US economy and laid bare the nation’s failure to judge the economy by what actually matters: How it works for working and middle-class Americans. 

In a matter of weeks, the pandemic left 26 million Americans unemployed and food banks overwhelmed. As one in four workers in the country are not entitled to a single day of paid sick leave, COVID-19 also forced many Americans to choose between staying healthy and putting food on their tables. It brought to the surface the growing economic precarity of tens of millions of Americans which Wall Street, and many in Washington, have long been ignoring. 

While some economists and politicians, such as Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs Executive Steven Mnuchin, claim that the American economy was doing just fine before the start of the pandemic, the truth is many Americans have been living on the verge of economic collapse long before COVID-19 reached the country. After the 2008 economic crash, Wall Street and big corporations rebounded quickly, but millions of Americans did not.  

The likes of Mnuchin get away with claiming the US economy was doing brilliantly before the outbreak because they judge economic success merely by the success and profitability of big corporations and not the economic stability and wellbeing of ordinary Americans, such as small business owners, warehouse workers and delivery drivers. 

If Mnuchin judged the health of the US economy by how well everyday people are coping, he would have seen that things were not so rosy on “Main Street” even before COVID-19.

 Long before the US recorded its first coronavirus-related death on February 29:

  • Nearly 60 percent of Americans had $1,000 or less in savings, meaning they had no safety net for an emergency. 
  • Half a million Americans were going bankrupt every year, due in part to medical bills. 
  • Just 35 percent of student loan debt holders were able to make regular payments and one in four Americans had already defaulted on their student loans. 
  • Half of Americans over the age of 55 had no retirement savings.

Had our economy been judged by these measures rather than stock gains on Wall Street, our political leaders would have understood that our economic ecosystem was already on the verge of collapse long before the beginning of this pandemic. 

The economic devastation the US is experiencing today is not solely caused by COVID-19. The long-ignored weaknesses of the economy have turned a public health crisis into an economic catastrophe. 

Earlier this year, I ran for US Senate in Texas. I ran as an unabashed progressive and spoke about the economic realities that most politicians from both political parties ignore in this state. Everywhere I travelled, people of different backgrounds asked me over and over again why no one cares about their struggle. They told me that they feel like they are fighting for their economic survival alone, without any support from the people who are in positions of power. 

Americans are not struggling with individual health or finance problems. They are in a collective struggle for economic survival in a country where the government refuses to take care of its own people. Today in the US, not only most of the wealth but also most of the political power is consolidated in the hands of a privileged few. Powerful players like the Koch Brothers and DeVos family are working to reset the rules and regulations that govern this economy to the detriment of everyday Americans. 

For too long the suffering of the masses has been ignored by their elected representatives. But there is opportunity in crisis. COVID-19 can eventually pave the way for a system that puts the wellbeing of ordinary Americans above corporate profits.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the nation to confront the vulnerabilities of the economy. It made it impossible for anyone to ignore the depressing fact that nearly one-third of all American workers are part of the gig economy, and have no job security or benefits.

It made it impossible to ignore that the majority of Americans are only one pay cheque away from going broke. It made it impossible to deny that the policies that progressives have long been fighting for – universal healthcare, paid family and medical leave, guaranteed employment, cancelling student debt, guaranteed housing, and bailing out working families in economic recessions – would have made this crisis more manageable. 

That is why we, progressive Americans, must seize this moment. We should not only support short-term fixes, like those outlined in the recent stimulus package, but also fight for more fundamental economic changes that would bring economic security and stability to the lives of working and middle-class families. 

Our real task in the face of this unprecedented public health emergency is to build an economy and government that works for all of us. To start this transformation, we should first change the way we measure the strength of our economy. We need to understand that the strength of our economy, and our nation, is dependent not on the profitability of large corporations, but the financial stability of the rest of us – the American people. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.