Let’s Rebuild, But Rebuild with Ingenuity That Includes Infrastructure to Keep People From Falling to Poverty

Poverty eradication suffered major setbacks as new studies show the economic fallout from COVID-19 has added 8 million new poor nationally, those who now fall below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Fifty percent of Hawaii residents have experienced income reduction. And over 40% of Hawaii working residents are now in the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) category, belonging to households with income above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) but below the basic cost of living. These are Hawaii residents living from paycheck-to-paycheck.

Perhaps there is optimism in that the new group under extreme financial hardship specifically have fallen through the cracks because of the pandemic, as opposed to the typically long-term poor in the elderly, disabled, under-skilled worker. As vaccination advances and the jobs market rebounds, it could be as simple as the new COVID poor finding jobs to put them back on track.

But is it simple as that?

Many small businesses have closed their doors for good. Some industries have shown vulnerability and now appear high-risk for investment. Have you seen the new K-12, public school online program commercial? The pandemic, inadvertently, could very well have altered the business landscape and consumer appetite in ways we have yet to discover.

The reality is getting back to the pre-COVID economy, is really returning to a fragile financial eco-system of high unemployment (the system that counts unemployment has never been accurate for decades), underemployment, inequitable compensation and pay. And in the case for Hawaii, an economy near singular under tourism. All of these were conditions ripe for a tipping point. And COVID is what it took to push millions over the precipice to financial instability, and for many, into poverty.

We’re in this together
The first challenge to helping the new COVID poor is where we are at this point. See this through and lift as many of our fellow Americans and residents back to solid footing. Extreme poverty and widespread food insecurity are not acceptable.

Multiple studies from economists recognize how valuable the might of government was during this national emergency, government’s response that literally saved lives, saved the economy, saved businesses.

Without the three major COVID-19 emergency relief packages, economists agree the current poverty level could have been far worse, two, maybe, three times more.

Having said this, let’s remember that the country is still in a very dire, precarious situation. If need be, more emergency bailouts must be an option. The new COVID poor, those now in poverty, those living on ALICE threshold, paycheck-to-paycheck – they must not be left behind.

Remember when the pandemic first started when fears and uncertainty prevailed, we kept ourselves calm by saying “We’re in this together.”

Yes, this was true as sacrifices were made by most to not spread the virus. That meant complying with lockdowns, following curfews, refusing to earn an income or run a business, stop travelling, stay away from our families not living in our households, endure isolation, wear our mask, keep social distancing, and on.

It has been one giant team effort. Now we must “Get out of this together,” as the right and moral thing to do. The common analogy was fighting COVID is like fighting a war. Certainty the number of casualties reflects that there was and is an ongoing war. And in war with whom we fight alongside with, we do not leave them behind.

Reimagine Social Services
As bold steps are underway to reimagine a post-COVID economy, it’s also time to rethink the role of social services. Decades ago medicine underwent a transition from reactive to preventative medicine. Data shows the proactive approach have led to healthier patients.

Similarly, much of social services have been primarily reactive, helping those already down. Like the preventative medicine model, social services should be multifaceted to include programs to prevent “falling down” in the first place. There ought to be more private sector involvement in social services; for companies to work with social services as they do with job recruiters currently. Companies working with government on job placement, job retraining and other public-private initiatives that enhance workers skills.

Technology is so moving so quickly that skills and education of the labor force are always ten steps behind. By the time someone finishes a degree, much of those skills are no longer cutting edge. Within most people’s lifetime now, we see two or three careers, depending how wisely a person chooses a profession. An industry appears solid, then suddenly technology could replace it. What happens during this transition between work, and if at all a worker’s age even deems it possible to make such a change? Dramatic income reduction. Poverty.

Social services must undergo a revamping and be quick to adjust to keep up with technology and the speedy changes in the jobs market. Social services should be seen as an investment, and look at each individual as not just a short term statistic.

Finally eradicating poverty to a reasonably acceptable level must have the support of a proactive social services system. The image and term that most people associate social services with is the safety net.

That’s just as sensible as a dying patient with stage 4 cancer seeing a doctor for the first time. The new image of social services should be more like a high-performance track field. It’s a place where people go to train, get skilled, run and move on. The educational system is the base from which a meaningful career follows.

Hopefully, that traditional track works out. But jobs retraining, case assessment and jobs placement (working with the private sector) as a part of social services could be like a place to go to run another lane in the track.

The best solution in the long-term to eradicate poverty is self-sufficiency. The pre-COVID economy and social services just haven’t been working for millions of people. Rebuilding the economy is not enough. There needs to be in place a social service infrastructure that can respond to the next pandemic or national emergency.

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