These are crazy, dangerous times. The fear, tension, and panic of the coronavirus pandemic have clearly taken over all aspects of our daily lives. The entire planet is enveloped in the same hysteria and threatened by the same pathogen which does not discriminate due to nationality, race, color, religion, gender or sexual preference. Arguably it does discriminate by age and by income. Older people die in greater numbers and people who can afford to travel are the primary transmitters.
The public policy response to the health and economic calamity now engulfing us must put those people who are most vulnerable on both counts, first.
In past economic calamities, the government has stepped up to bail out banks, real estate investors, automobile manufacturers, and other big businesses.
While all of us will take a financial hit in the coming months, our government must first and foremost reach out now to help those in our community who already live on the very edge.
According to the Aloha United Way’s “ALICE Report” – 48 percent of Hawai’i families with children already have incomes below what it takes to afford basic household expenses that includes housing, child care, food, transportation and health care. These individuals include child care providers, retail salespersons, waitstaff, cashiers, administrative assistants, janitors, housekeepers, landscapers, teaching assistants, mechanics, restaurant cooks and more. More than one-third—37 percent—of senior households in Hawai‘i fall into this category.
Think about it. 48% of our friends, family and neighbors were already struggling mightily just to survive before the coronavirus storm struck our shores.
These are the folks we need to think about and help, first. Many have already either lost their jobs or have had their hours cut back. These are our friends who live without sick pay, without that 14 days of supplies in the cupboard and with less than $900 savings in the bank.
Extended and enhanced unemployment and SNAP benefits are obvious frontline public policy steps that are needed. A freeze on rent increases, rental evictions, and foreclosures caused by loss of employment due to the pandemic also are needed.
Thankfully our state government has already announced they are waiving the normal one week waiting period for unemployment benefits. Those that have been laid off should go online immediately and file their claim https://huiclaims.hawaii.gov/#/
Both the U.S. Congress and the President are moving forward proposals intended to provide direct financial support to individuals as well. According to the New York Times, “In a briefing on Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration is talking to Congress about sending cash payments to Americans over the next two weeks to cushion the economic blow from coronavirus.”
In Australia “up to 6.5 million people on government benefits, including pensioners, the unemployed and those on family welfare payments will get up to $750 each in cash payments in an attempt to drive consumers back to the shops.”
In Italy, mortgage payments will be suspended as part of measures to soften the economic blow of coronavirus on households.
Small businesses like regular people will need similar help – tax waivers, deferrals, and reduced penalties are a good place to start. Low-interest loans and employee subsidies are also needed. As a small business owner myself that suffered the wrath of Hurricane Iniki, it was this type of support that kept us afloat. The state waived the penalties and interest for late payment of taxes and allowed a payment plan. Eventually, the taxes were paid in full and our business went on to be profitable and healthy. Without that help and flexibility from the state, we would otherwise have gone bankrupt.
Big businesses and large employers also will be at the door of government asking for help. If they are willing to forgo large executive salaries, commit to keeping workers employed and pledge to repay that support from their future profits – support for their operations via government loans and subsidies also must be considered.
Though it is often hard to see at the time, with every disaster comes opportunity.
Now, more than ever we need to invest in local food production.
Now too is the time to invest locally in creating “green jobs”, protecting and enhancing our watersheds, trail enhancement, invasive species removal and more. Supporting local entrepreneurs involved in recycling and other innovative “green” technologies also must be front and center.
The current emphasis on reducing travel also reinforces the urgency of implementing “remote testimony” capability at the state legislature. Everyone needs to be able to participate in government regardless of where they live, without the cost and health risks involved with airline travel.
Government must step up early and aggressively to provide the stability and core support needed in this time of uncertainty and fear.
But of course, the government cannot do it all. The private sector, businesses large and small, local entrepreneurs and each of us as individuals must also step up and take care of, nurture and look out for our own families, our own businesses and our own communities and neighborhoods.
Together we will get through this.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the Hawaii State Senate, where he was Majority Leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.