COVID-19: Let’s Act Now to Protect the Financially Vulnerable

COVID-19: Let’s Act Now to Protect the Financially Vulnerable

By Arjuna Costa

My son turned 16 last month and the birthday present he had waited half his life for was finally here: we were going on a father-son weekend trip to Florida to watch his beloved New York Yankees in spring training. To a baseball nut like him, the prospect of a wave, a fist bump, or an autographed baseball from the star center fielder, or even the second-string catcher, was thrilling! This was to be a way for us to celebrate the joy and pageantry of the game together — not to nurture my secret hope that his love of baseball and endless statistics meant that my monosyllabic teenager is a budding data scientist in disguise.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the dream trip to a screeching halt. Earlier this week, I made the prudent decision to cancel it. Even though “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” are abstract concepts to an adolescent brain convinced of its own invincibility, my son hid his disappointment well. The fact that two days later Major League Baseball cancelled all spring training games came as little consolation.

The emotions stirred by this, however, kept playing on my mind as I thought about the ripples that extended outward from this choice. We would not be taking an Uber or Lyft to the airport and that $50 ride was not hitting the driver’s pocket — money that could easily be the difference between paying for a full week of groceries or having to go hungry a couple of nights. What about the person at curbside check-in, who relies on tips to make ends meet? And the TSA contract employee, who needed that extra shift? Or the barista at the airport coffee shop? What about the parents who now don’t have childcare and their children who no longer have access to free meal programs?

As I followed this thread all the way through, the implications overwhelmed me. The ripple suddenly felt like a tsunami bearing down inexorably on the 135 million Americans who are struggling to lead a financially secure life in the face of rising costs and uncertain incomes. COVID-19’s toll on physical health may be high if the epidemiologists’ models are even halfway accurate, but the implications of an extended lockdown on the financial lives of those who are already financially vulnerable will be downright staggering.

We need to act, and that action needs to be bold, quick, decisive, expansive, and compassionate. This crisis calls for leadership of the FDR variety, which is sorely lacking in both government and the private sector today. In particular, a quote from FDR has stayed with me from a visit to his memorial in Washington, D.C.: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

I am not one who is prone to sports hero worship, especially not in the world of over-hyped athletes and their Instagram accounts. But I found one today, a basketball player for the Cleveland Cavaliers called Kevin Love, who made the headlines among the deluge of news stories and pundits’ reactions about sports events being suspended or cancelled: “Cavaliers’ Love pledges $100k to arena workers.” Love understood that the real negative impact of a shutdown would not be on TV revenues or sneaker sales, but on the thousands of low wage workers who relied on a game being played for their livelihood, and a recognition that immediate action is necessary to help those for whom remote work is not an option. In a text message to ESPN, Love stated simply, “My hope is that others will step up!”

Who needs to step up? Congress is contemplating a set of measures including paid leave, free coverage for coronavirus testing, extended unemployment insurance, and expanded food assistance — in many ways reinstating programs that have been dismantled over the years. It is an appalling critique of our system that we are making a big deal out of giving people paid sick leave and free testing for a global pandemic, but that is material for another blog. Right now, we need to do more, and the private sector must also act with Love (pun intended) to play its part.

What if the government issued a virtual credit card to those 135 million Americans, with $50 or $100 reloaded every week to help them make ends meet while this crisis lasts? What if the gig economy worker platforms and large employers of contract workers decided to pay people the average of what they earned in the past few months, even in the face of drastically reduced work hours and earnings? What if all of us who have the luxury of being stockholders, and the fund managers who manage our money, gave the CEO credit for building long-term brand value by acting out of compassion rather than selling stock and calling for a boardroom coup?

We have the data to identify who needs this type of intervention. We have the technology to move money into people’s wallets with the press of a button. At Flourish, I have the privilege of working with a number of mission-driven entrepreneurs and their teams who would gladly work through the night (remotely, of course) to build whatever add-ons to the technology we need to make this happen. And we can broadcast the availability of such support through every text message, tweet, and social media post to our networks.

Let’s entertain the most radical proposals from the brightest minds, and channel the creativity and disruptive thinking that Americans are known for to come up with solutions. Let’s make bipartisan decisions in the halls of Congress without worrying about being seen as supporting big government or alienating the voter base. Let’s put people front and center in every discussion in the boardrooms of corporate America. Choose to be remembered not for the fact that you missed your earnings per share guidance for a quarter or two, but for how you helped guide your employees through an uncertain and tumultuous time in human history. To quote FDR again, “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice, (…) the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”

(From Arjuna Costa’s Medium)