Community Commentary/Opinion: COVID-19 exposes deadly gaps in our social safety net

There is nothing like a crisis to expose the cavernous gaps in our systems of support. A few examples among many:

Evicting people from public housing for unpaid rent when other affordable housing options are scarce has always increased homelessness and educational instability. COVID-19 just lays bare the naked cruelty of it.

Firing workers for being sick — or for taking care of sick children or parents — has always been heartless. Why is it any more unconscionable when the disease is coronavirus instead of flu or cancer?

Mass incarceration and immigrant detention were always deadly. Just ask the women at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where 20 women died between February 2016 and February 2020. COVID-19 just magnifies the health and other risks of locking so many people up for so long for so little.

To put it bluntly: COVID-19 is not just a destructive act of nature. It is also a human-made crisis caused by our collective failure to address gaps in our economic system and social safety net. These gaps leave millions of people stranded every day without health care, paid sick leave, affordable housing, reliable food sources, access to technology and broadband and other basic life necessities.

Immigrants, families living paycheck-to-paycheck, people who are incarcerated, those who lack affordable housing or child care, and many others live a grueling, perpetual, slow-motion emergency every day due to our collective failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, support a living wage, end mass incarceration and take any number of steps to alleviate the effects of vast economic inequality and discrimination on low-income communities and communities of color.

Those gaps existed before COVID-19, but the pandemic will exacerbate and compound their effects, leaving even larger chasms between the haves and have-nots when it recedes — unless we take aggressive action now to prevent the pandemic from having a catastrophic impact on low-income communities.

That is why the Legal Aid Justice Center has joined community partners all over the state and nation in calling on public officials at the state and local levels to take aggressive action to protect low-income Virginia residents and communities of color, including ensuring that people navigating our criminal legal and immigration detention systems are not exposed to potentially fatal health risks due to restrictions on their liberty or violations of their rights.

Poverty is not caused by poor people; it’s caused by system failure, discrimination and intentional exploitation. And our response to COVID-19 proves that it does not have to be this way.

We are asking schools to provide low-income students with access to technology and to remove barriers to school meals by widening pick-up windows, allowing any family member to pick up multiple meals and ensuring all students — regardless of age or other status — receive these services.

We are asking hospitals to stop collecting medical debt and urging all levels of government to stop taking people’s wages for unpaid personal property taxes or other public debts.

We are asking the courts to halt evictions and debt collection proceedings and demanding that ICE cease arresting people and release all detained immigrants who are eligible for bond or parole.

We are also calling on private individuals and institutions — such as landlords and employers — to avoid any action that will result in people losing housing or jobs.

You can read the full list of priority issues at .

We applaud the recent efforts of many community members, public officials and private actors who have stepped up with measures to help mitigate the effects of this crisis. But most of these measures do not go far enough to stem the immediate damage.

We must also recognize this crisis for what it is: a wake-up call to us all. Preventable tragedies will occur because we failed to close gaps in our system that leave people one crisis away from becoming homeless, jobless, hungry and saddled with debt. And because we live in a racially structured society that causes racial inequities across systems, the virus and its economic effects will hit Black and brown people the hardest. When it is over, let us not waste this crisis by going back to business as usual.

Poverty is not caused by poor people; it’s caused by system failure, discrimination, and intentional exploitation. And our response to COVID-19 proves that it does not have to be this way. Together, we can create systems built to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color do not repeatedly bear the brunt of acts of nature like the coronavirus, or the human-made acts of inequitable laws and policies. We can make systems that work for low-income communities and communities of color all the time, not just during a crisis.

Angela Ciolfi is the executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia nonprofit organization that partners with communities and clients to achieve racial, economic and social justice by dismantling the systems that create and perpetuate poverty.

This piece first appeared in the Virginia Mercury.