JPVP Debate | Will America finally confront income inequality?

JPVP Debate | Will America finally confront income inequality?

June 9, 2020 in *JPVP Featured Interview, Summer Issue 2020
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This summer has placed racial inequality front and center in the American consciousness. Protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police have erupted all over the country. And before that the coronavirus starkly revealed societal inequalities by hurting some more than others. People of color become infected and die at a far higher rate than white Americans. While professionals in higher-paying fields have the luxury of working from home, millions of others, such as restaurant and retail workers, have seen their livelihoods evaporate. Frontline workers, such as grocery store cashiers, food delivery people and healthcare aides, put their lives at risk every day while barely earning enough to feed and house their families.

Through the course of the Jewish Political Voices Project, we have been following a group of 30 voters in 10 battleground states with a wide range of opinions and expertise. When we began the project last August, the intent was to explore what voters were thinking about the presidential campaign. More on this is to come, but recently, project director Amy Saltzman sat down over Zoom with two of our voters to discuss the impact of the virus on the nation’s most vulnerable communities and what can be done to address these challenges. Glenn Hamer, a Republican, is head of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, where he works on issues ranging from trade and taxes to health care and education. Janice Weiner, a Democrat, was recently elected to the city council in Iowa City after many years in the U.S. Foreign Service. She is the president-elect of her synagogue and on the board of the local chapter of Shelter House, which provides a range of services for those experiencing homelessness. As Saltzman finds out, both Hamer and Weiner are inspired by Judaism, although they come to very different conclusions.

Moment: Let me start by asking how you have fared during this difficult time. 

Janice Weiner: I consider myself privileged. I have a home. I can shelter in place. I don’t have to worry about food or money, or whether or not I need to go back to work. I’m among those who I believe are quite fortunate.

Glenn Hamer: Like Janice, I feel blessed that we have a roof over our heads, we have food and I can work from home. So, I consider myself very lucky personally.

From those positions of relative privilege, do you think we as Jews have a particular responsibility to speak up and fight for those who have less and are at greater risk during this pandemic?

Weiner: I do. I think of the various ways that we as Jews approach the world, such as the notion of pikuach nefesh, which dictates that saving a life takes precedence over almost anything else in Jewish law; and tikkun olam, the obligation to pay it forward, to fight injustice, and not just within our own community. And, of course, tzedakah. Historically we have an obligation because we know what it’s like to be vulnerable—the notion of helping or loving the stranger as ourselves because we were once strangers in Egypt. So I believe we have an obligation to step up and help wherever we can.

Hamer: Janice put it beautifully. Yes, I do believe we have an obligation as Jews. In my position at the Chamber of Commerce, we are always thinking about how we want everyone in society to have greater opportunities and looking at things like health care, paid sick leave and even programs to make sure we can keep people on payrolls who have been furloughed during this crisis.

What measures do you support to address inequities in areas such as income, health care and housing that have been
exacerbated by this health crisis? 

Weiner: First of all, we need to acknowledge that these inequities exist. This pandemic has shown us where the fissures are in society. The real test is if we choose to deal with these problems in the aftermath of this crisis, or if we just think we can keep going as we always have. I think some major things need to change. For instance, when we look at the millions of unemployed now, we should think about models like the “short-time work” program instituted by Germany after the recession and used during this crisis, which allows workers to essentially stay on their employer’s payroll and receive 60 percent of their salary for as long as necessary. Then, once things start to reopen, it allows businesses to ramp up fast because they don’t have to rehire and retrain. We also need to look at how we deliver health care so that it isn’t employment-based. And we need to acknowledge that people need sick leave and family leave.

Hamer: This is a 9/11 type event where the world is going to look different forever after it’s over. I’ll first say that Congress did a reasonably good job in a short period of time passing [stimulus] bills with almost unanimous support in both chambers. For a country that is fairly polarized, it’s really important during this pandemic to stay as united as possible. This is not a great time for partisan debates that are more ideologically tinged. We could quibble over some of the details, like with the unemployment insurance provision, which allows people to get $600 extra a week. It isn’t perfectly designed. You do have potential issues where some individuals who could still be working will be able to make more if they are unemployed. However, in this time of a pandemic, I think it’s extremely important for policies to err on the side of being more generous so there isn’t additional pressure on workers. And I do think that policies like sick leave and family leave are absolutely going to need to be updated.

What about immigration? Immigrants are occupying a lot of the frontline roles during this health crisis.

Hamer: About 35 to 40 percent of the population in Arizona is Hispanic. I think about the Dreamers and the people who are literally keeping America fed. After this pandemic is over, we need to double down on finally forcing a good, fair immigration compromise. A lot of these men and women are keeping this country functioning, and they definitely deserve better. I have more appreciation for them now than ever before.

Weiner: Many of the immigrants and the Dreamers are on the frontline of healthcare in New York City, for example. I don’t see how we can possibly pull the rug out from under them when they’ve been helping to keep this country together. In Iowa, a lot of the Hispanic population work in the meat-packing industry, which, not surprisingly, has been hit very hard by the virus. The thing that really took me aback was the failure to see that this was going to happen. It was entirely predictable when you have people working literally elbow-to-elbow and living generally in fairly tight quarters with their families. But there was a failure at every level to protect these people.

What do you think about the Trump administration’s efforts to reopen the economy and its handling of the crisis overall?

Weiner: It is very hard to advocate for a reopening that is about saving Trump’s reelection chances, as opposed to saving lives, when you have had an outbreak at the most heavily tested place in the country—the White House. Trump’s approach ignores the science, and I fear we will all pay with more illness and death. I am also appalled that the administration declined to be part of the international effort to work toward a vaccine. Of course, we can’t remain cloistered indefinitely. But the best way out is through greatly ramped-up testing and contact tracing. The fact that it took so long to order that all workers and residents of long-term care facilities be tested is a barometer for how this has been dealt with at the top level in this country.

Hamer: My belief is that the faster we can safely get back to an economy resembling the one that the pandemic leveled, the better, but with some important caveats. For instance, workforce safety protocols that follow CDC guidelines for pandemic-type diseases will be important, as will protecting employers from being sued out of existence when they are abiding by accepted industry guidelines. There’s a lot of balancing and compromise that will need to take place. There’s just no playbook for this. Has the administration made mistakes? Of course. But I do think some of the people involved in this, like Dr. Deborah Birx, are as impressive as they come. I think most people feel very comfortable with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Then there is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who’s very well respected on both sides of the aisle. But I do think more could have been done early on to provide personal protective equipment for the people on the front lines in the healthcare industry. Some of that was very disturbing.

Weiner: I would’ve loved to see a much more proactive, science-based, data-driven approach from the very beginning on things like testing. I’m thrilled that a number of states are doing more testing. We have to be able to support the states and, particularly, the local governments that are really bearing a major portion of this load right now and will continue to do so.

So, do you think most of the responsibility for testing and related issues should fall to states, as members of the Trump administration have suggested?

Hamer: It seems in most states people have been working very well together to first make sure that the health care system is as strong as possible, so we don’t see what happened tragically in Italy where hospitals were overrun. Our governor, Republican Doug Ducey, and his health care team are reporting every day on the ER capacity, the ICU capacity, the ventilator situation, how many new hospitalizations there are and PPE inventory. I feel that right now the balance is just about right in terms of federal, state and local responsibility. It’s not perfect, but I feel that there’s a good equilibrium that’s developing. And I’ll just say I would not feel comfortable with the federal government having complete control over everything regardless of who was in the White House.

Weiner: There are a number of states that are run by Democrats and a number run by Republicans that seem to be doing really well. Our governor, Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is not doing so well. We’re one of the few states that has never had a formal stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Many of us at the local level, particularly those who have been hard hit, begged and pleaded with her. I understand she has had political realities to deal with since this is a largely rural state. However, if you look at where things like meat-packing plants are located, they are literally all over the state. I think there needs to be more of a bipartisan effort at the federal level to help states and cities or we’re going to have to make impossible choices. We’ll have to choose, for instance, between helping small businesses or helping people who really can’t afford to eat. School districts are continuing to feed our kids right now, and we’ve all seen the incredible lines for food banks around the country.

Has the health crisis affected your thinking about whom to support for president?

Hamer: Barring something changing, I will vote for Donald Trump. We entered the pandemic with the healthiest economy that the country has seen in a long time. In Arizona, it was the best I’ve ever seen it. The number-one problem for employers was they couldn’t find enough people to hire. There aren’t many examples of anyone handling this pandemic perfectly. And as I said, I do like the people that Trump has engaged on the healthcare side. I also have a tremendous amount of respect for Vice President Pence.

Weiner: Glenn, you talked about the economy being healthy. We had close to full employment here in Iowa too, but what we’re seeing now is that the economy wasn’t really as healthy as we thought it was, because the social safety net has frayed so much that it left many, many people in the lurch. They are now faced with impossible decisions about whether to keep working and put their lives in danger. When I was in the Foreign Service, I was in Mexico City when the H1N1 virus started. I’ve seen why it’s important in these crises to communicate honestly, to make decisions based on science and to act decisively. I am supporting former Vice President Joe Biden very strongly. I think he brings a wealth of experience to bear and will have a really strong bench of people in his administration. One of the really concerning things about the current administration is the number of positions that have been left empty and the really competent longtime public servants who have been pushed out. We are paying the price now for having hollowed out many of these positions. I feel strongly about this and will be working hard to get Biden elected.

Hamer: I do agree that no matter who is president, the Senate needs to put down its arms and, barring any really crazy stuff in someone’s background, confirm whomever the president appoints. That’s something positive that I hope could come out of this pandemic.

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