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People With Disabilities Face Greater Risk of Economic Devastation From COVID-19

We need an economic stimulus aimed at ensuring people with disabilities are not thrust even further into poverty.

Melissa Baptista checks on her fiancé, Eric McGuire, who is bedridden with several medical conditions and is on oxygen, in Franklin, Massachusetts, on March 25, 2020. Melissa is a nurse at a nearby nursing home and depends on caregivers to take care of McGuire's needs, but one caregiver plans to isolate herself because she has a sinus infection and will be tested for COVID-19.

Part of the Series

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is wreaking havoc on the health and economic lives of billions of people across the world. In the U.S., massive layoffs and unemployment levels eclipsing the Great Depression are expected. As workers lose jobs, unemployment filings are going through the roof. As of April 7, about 10 million workers have filed for unemployment, and reports estimate that up to 13 percent of the population is out of work. While the U.S. government has predicted close to 20 percent unemployment, other reports have predicted that close to 50 percent of jobs are at risk. At the time of writing, nearly 95 percent of Americans, or 306.5 million, are being urged to stay home and are under some sort of “lockdown,” while bills pile up and income is halted. Major U.S. cities are experiencing medical equipment shortages, and it’s likely medicine and food shortages will be seen worldwide. Market failure and a total collapse of the health system seem inevitable.

As in all times of catastrophe, working and poor people are the first to pay the economic price. Yet, at the forefront of the working class most hurt by the fallout of the crisis are people with disabilities. The disability community has complex health needs and are high-risk for being impacted dramatically by contracting COVID-19. Seemingly insurmountable economic challenges already exist for financially marginalized people with disabilities. Amid a global pandemic, those challenges will be amplified and will have unseen economic ripples that will send financial shockwaves through the disability community for years to come.

People with disabilities will be one of the hardest-hit populations by both the health and economic consequences of the pandemic. To ensure people with disabilities are cared for and aren’t thrust further into poverty or left behind, an economic stimulus that targets the needs of the most vulnerable is urgently needed.

Existing Economic Marginalization Will Be Exacerbated

Economic hardship and discrimination in the disability community have been a national disgrace for decades. Nearly one quarter of the U.S. population has a disability or multiple co-occurring disabilities. It is one of the largest federally protected class populations in the U.S. As the current economic system stands — without a deadly pandemic that will have consequences for years — the disability community is already struggling to make ends meet and clinging for survival. People with disabilities are underemployed and unemployed at disproportionately higher rates than the general population. Higher rates of poverty are widespread throughout the disability community.

People with disabilities have long been seen as nonessential workers, and this crisis, if not appropriately addressed, will only exacerbate those discriminatory assumptions. Roughly 320,000 workers with disabilities are paid subminimum wages because they are viewed as a detriment to the economic system and unworthy of the same pay as workers without disabilities. Simply, the disability community is assumed to be less productive and a burden on employers. With businesses closing down in major cities, which is now expected nationwide, people with disabilities may be the first to face unemployment and job loss.

Since employment and economic prospects for people with disabilities are overly precarious, housing instability and disparities have been recognized as a major financial difficulty. People with disabilities are overrepresented in the homeless population. Nearly one-fourth of homeless people in the U.S. have a disability, and people with disabilities are also more likely to be chronically homeless.

Food insecurity is an issue for nearly 40 million Americans, yet having a disability increases the likelihood of not knowing where the next meal will come from. Experts have long cited disability as a major risk factor for food insecurity. With an economic catastrophe emerging, food insecurity for most Americans will become a reality, and for people with disabilities, the crisis will be heightened.

A resource-starved, means-tested disability benefits system will also contribute to the economic crisis people with disabilities are going to face. Before the pandemic, people with disabilities — who are beneficiaries of the life-saving programs through Medicaid and supplemental income through Social Security — were expected to live on about $12,000 a year to keep benefits. These programs have also been under direct attack by austerity and increased privatization through the neoliberal political project for the last four decades. The system does not have the proper model or enough funds to sufficiently provide benefits through times of nonemergency, let alone amid a pandemic that threatens the world’s health systems and economy.

Unemployment, a deprived benefits system and inequitable economic prospects aren’t the only crises people with disabilities face in these challenging times. For the last decade, there has been a nationwide direct support professional (DSP) labor shortage. Caring for the most vulnerable is an exhausting and demanding job and wages are wholly inadequate for recruiting and retaining DSPs. The pandemic has the added impact of magnifying the DSP labor shortage, which will leave those who need care unserved.

An Inclusive Economic Stimulus

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, a United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of people with disabilities, called for more action to minimize devastating economic and health outcomes. Devandas Aguilar, who also has a disability, said,

People with disabilities feel they have been left behind. Access to additional financial aid is also vital to reduce the risk of people with disabilities and their families falling into greater vulnerability or poverty. Many people with disabilities depend on services that have been suspended and may not have enough money to stockpile food and medicine, or afford the extra cost of home deliveries.

An unprecedented economic and global health emergency calls for immediate, bold and drastic action. The response to the crisis offered by leading Democrats and Republicans has been woefully inadequate. The stimulus that has been enacted and the Federal Reserve’s dumping of funds that overwhelmingly benefit corporate America, along with other plans offered to this point, have largely left out sufficient economic protections for people with disabilities, their families and working-class people.

A massive federal and centralized plan to deal with the health and economic ramifications of the pandemic is needed at this critical junction. Mitigating the worst of the health effects will require far more international cooperation than the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. An enormous state intervention with vast swaths of the economy brought under democratic control, the likes of which have never been seen in the U.S., is absolutely necessary to protect the working class, vulnerable people, and to calm the odds of market failure and economic collapse. To ensure that people with disabilities aren’t left behind, the government must enact an emergency relief plan that includes and accounts for people with disabilities.

The state must issue a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which includes people with disabilities and their families. A minimum of $2,000 should be provided to every American monthly until the economy is stabilized and the pandemic subsides. A monthly income of $2,000 will keep working-class families and the economy afloat. A $2,000 UBI will go a long way for keeping people in their homes, allowing them to purchase goods to survive and prevent a demand collapse that could crumble the U.S. economy.

Cash payments should be scaled based on cost of living. For example, a worker in New York City or San Francisco should be receiving a much higher basic income than a worker in rural Montana. It is very likely that family members of people with disabilities will be laid off as nonessential businesses become nonoperational. Families often act as caregivers and financial providers for people with disabilities and will also need extra income to care for those with complex needs. People with disabilities already need UBI to escape poverty — the pandemic compounds the current economic marginalization the disability community is currently facing.

To address the DSP labor shortage and to ensure that people with disabilities are cared for in a time of crisis, the minimum wage for DSPs should be raised to $25 per hour. Coupled with a wage increase, since DSPs will be working with high-risk populations, additional hazard pay should be granted. DSPs are essential workers and proper policy should recognize that people with disabilities must be cared for. With this in mind, the labor shortage will be addressed and essential personnel like DSP will have more money in their pockets to help keep the economy afloat.

To stabilize the lives of people living with housing insecurity, homes must be treated as an economic necessity. An immediate freeze of rent and mortgage payments, along with cessation of evictions and foreclosures, must be enacted nationwide; this should be coupled with releasing all workers from debt obligations. For people who are homeless, hotels and the surplus of vacant houses must be utilized to house vulnerable people and ensure that no one is left out on the streets.

Production of essential items during this crisis must become a priority. What little manufacturing remains in the U.S. must be shifted to produce ventilators, medical masks, ICU beds, testing kits and food necessities. A federal jobs guarantee, along with the utilization of the Defense Production Act, should be enacted as quickly as possible to put people back to work under the direction of the federal government and put cash in the hands of workers, with and without disabilities.

Addressing food insecurity, which will be heightened as consumers continue to raid grocery stores, must be brought to the head of any economic stimulus plan. Sooner rather than later, the federal government must remove work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and expand the Meals on Wheels program to include people with disabilities. Retaining work requirements when so many in the disability community are food insecure and jobless is needlessly heartless. Expanding food assistance programs that help those suffering from food insecurity is a top priority for protecting the powerless during a time of uncertainty.

Means-tested asset caps for supplemental income through Social Security and health benefits through Medicaid will have to be lifted so that those with disabilities can keep their benefits while receiving UBI. Before the pandemic, disability beneficiaries were expected to survive on a meager $12,000 annually; while the economy tanks, people with disabilities need more assistance now than ever. Means testing must be done away with so that people with disabilities can receive more income and financial assistance without losing lifesaving benefits.

The pandemic is amplifying issues that people with disabilities have lived with for decades. The failures of the economic system and the state which is controlled by the wealthy are becoming clearer. The outdated neoliberal model is dying and bringing down the working class with it. This is an unparalleled time and what is needed now is more democratic control and a centralized response by the federal government that addresses the needs of the working class and high-risk populations, like people with disabilities. Piecemeal solutions by way of state governments will only leave the crisis half-mitigated and will create even more uncertainty and panic for the economic lives of people with disabilities. Bold, inclusive and unprecedented actions are needed now if lives are going to be saved and suffering is kept to a minimum.

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