What will our social compact look like in the wake of COVID-19?

May 6, 2020 12:15 am

Shelves of canned foods sit partially empty. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

In 2019, more than 1.6 million different Ohioans needed help from a charitable food pantry because they couldn’t meet their nutritional needs without it.

They were 82-year-old widowers scraping by on Social Security benefits. They were working parents with children who cobbled together a couple of important, but underpaid, jobs in food service or home health care or retail. They were low-income college students, people living with disabilities or chronic diseases, adults in recovery, servers and stylists and cashiers and janitors.

Many of them were children – children with parents or caregivers who were brave and selfless enough to sacrifice their pride and ask for help when they needed it to feed their families.

They were all of us. And now, as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ripple across our society, they are, as ever, all of us.

For those workers who already had the misfortune of a car breaking down or hours being cut at the wrong time, when savings were low and bills due – they know the fear and pain that too many are experiencing now. But they experienced their crisis in isolation, and regrettably too often, with little compassion to soften the blow.

Now, at least a third of the people who have sought help from Ohio’s emergency hunger relief network over the past month are first-timers. A few months ago, they might have been doing okay. But, like far too many Americans, they didn’t have the savings to help them weather a job loss. And now, they’re experiencing personal financial crisis as a community.

Just as we have been in this together by staying at home, we have also been in this together as paychecks have stopped and unemployment lines have clogged. Congress has taken several important and historic steps to stabilize the families who are struggling.

Gov. Mike DeWine and his administration, including the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and Director Kimberly Hall, have responded in support of basic lifelines like Ohio’s foodbanks through National Guard deployment, emergency funds, and administrative flexibility.

Companies and individuals that are able to give have given generously to keep hunger at bay for another day, another week, another month as conditions continue to worsen throughout Ohio and across the country. The line separating so many from hunger crumbled so quickly, and in true American spirit, many have responded to help.

There’s more to be done in the near-term, including boosting SNAP (food stamps) and other safety net benefits — and we are hopeful that the duty we share to protect and provide for one another will continue to be championed by our elected officials in Congress.

But it’s also up to each of us to carry this experience forward in our hearts and minds. What will happen over the next months and years as recessionary conditions persist? Will Americans remember what it felt like to wait in long lines for emergency boxes of food? Will they retain a deeper understanding of the indignity and desperation of food insecurity?

Will they call on their elected officials to continue to make basic safety net programs, like SNAP, available for people who need it, when they need it, because it’s just the right thing to do? Will our new social compact include a shared commitment to being there for one another?

The fight against the virus is long from over, and the fight against the economic pain will stretch much further. We have many challenges ahead that will require continued bipartisanship and benevolence.

In the years following the Great Recession, the economic recovery was slowest to reach the most vulnerable, and they were too often wrongly scapegoated for system-wide inequity and disparity. Meanwhile, the policies and programs that should have been bolstered during better economic times were too often left to further deteriorate. 

We can’t let the same story play out again in the prolonged wake of this crisis. To form a more perfect union, we must establish justice and promote the general welfare of each of our neighbors, because if this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our ability to survive and thrive in society is shaped directly by the whole. 

Right now, when you see a line of cars at your local foodbank or food pantry, you don’t blame the people in line for needing help — you know this crisis is not of their making. Is that how you viewed people without the means to buy their own food before?

They, too, needed help for reasons outside their control. They pulled out their EBT cards in line in front of you at the grocery store and cringed inside, bracing for your silent judgment. They needed our compassion when they were in crisis, and too often, they got only our derision. 

As this shared experience imprints change in our worldviews, let one be a change in how we treat social and economic injustice, not only through our policies, but through our perspective.

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Joree Novotny
Joree Novotny

Joree has worked to represent the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, Ohio’s largest charitable response to hunger, and its 12 member foodbanks and 3,600 member agencies for nearly a decade. As director of external affairs, she leads the association’s efforts to better communicate, leverage resources and promote partnerships and policies that meet the needs of food insecure Ohioans today and eliminate their barriers to food security in the future. Joree is a proud AmeriCorps VISTA alum and a graduate of Youngstown State University.