The coronavirus will devastate the South because politicians let poverty to do so first

But wherever it goes, this pandemic will highlight how poverty — and our willingness to let people remain in it — is a danger for all of us.
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A volunteer helps direct traffic as food is loaded into vehicles during a mobile market day at Atlanta Motor Speedway on April 17, 2020 in Hampton, Ga.Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images
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By The Rev. Dr. William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author, "Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good"

Though President Donald Trump insists on calling it an “invisible enemy,” COVID-19 is ever before us and the data increasingly make clear that the South will soon become ground zero for coronavirus deaths.

According to a new analysis from Pew's Stateline, the South is poised to see more death and economic loss from COVID-19 than any other region in the country — and not only because so many Republican governors delayed stay-at-home orders, included extreme religious exemptions that allowed large crowds to continue to gather, and now seem poised to reopen everything from beaches to nail salons long before the curve has truly started to flatten. Stateline notes that decades of policies that undercut government programs and left individuals to fend for themselves have led to higher poverty rates, gaping holes in the social safety net and a health care system in which 75 rural hospitals across the region have been shuttered in the last year alone.

COVID-19, then, is a contrast dye, highlighting the South as the native home of poverty in America.

Long before this present crisis, the South suffered from a pandemic of poverty that was broadly hidden from public life. Politicians who preached freedom from government as the heart of American liberty used any assent to deregulate corporations; they preached “individual responsibility” and used that to justify the dismantling of and resistance to public services and anti-poverty programs. If people are poor, they said, it is not the fault of the wealthy who used the labor of the poor with too little care or remuneration; it is not, they said, the fault of the government that failed to promote the common good when it could promote a limited one.

The lie of Southern politics for 50 years has been that the poor are to blame for their own poverty.

And, according to a study the Poor People’s Campaign conducted in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, poverty is most extreme in the places where systemic racism was, and often remains, the greatest. And in the South, systemic racism can be no more explicit than in the voter suppression that targets people of color.

The former Confederate states — all of which had been subject to federal supervision after the 1965 Voting Rights Act — have passed voter suppression measures targeting nonwhite voters since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby decision stripped the act of its power to compel those states to submit any voting changes for federal review.

In North Carolina, for instance, the state Legislature passed an omnibus bill to suppress votes as soon as the Shelby decision came down. The North Carolina NAACP sued and a federal court found that the bill had targeted African Americans with “near surgical precision” — but the damage was done. People elected as a result of voter suppression passed policies that denied Medicaid expansion, limited unemployment benefits and changed the tax code in ways that exacerbated poverty.

Even before 2013, states like Alabama had passed restrictive voter identification bills. But with preclearance requirements removed, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas quickly followed suit, while other states moved to restrict registration or purge voter rolls through “exact match” programs, like the one that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp implemented when he was secretary of state. According to the Brennan Center, this act of voter suppression, implemented mostly over the past decade, is simply a dressed-up version of the early 20th century’s Jim Crow tactics.

When we look at a map of states that have actively worked to suppress voter rights since 2010, those states also have extremely high rates of poverty and child poverty, and lack access to affordable health care. Most of those states also refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and many have passed state-level legislation to override a municipality’s power to raise the minimum wage.

The lack of access to political power, then, feeds into the lack of access to economic opportunities and health care, creating a dangerous environment in which a pandemic is now spreading — and is exacerbated by the idea, now trumpeted in right-wing media, that the economic costs to the wealthy are not worth the physical harm to the poor.

The available demographic data on COVID-19 deaths to date already make clear that African Americans bear an extremely unequal share in the South. In Mississippi, where African Americans make up less than 40 percent of the population, they already account for 72 percent of the state’s deaths from this virus. In our home state of North Carolina, the percentage of African American deaths is also nearly twice the representation in the population.

But while a disproportionate number of black people in the South are poor, in raw numbers, there are more poor white people in the South. And because all poor people either do not have stable homes in which to stay, or cannot afford to stay at home when they are most likely to either be deemed "essential" employees or forced back to work under gubernatorial orders meant to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic, this disease will continue to spread fastest among them.

But the virus will not remain a disease of the poor when we insist that they serve our essential needs and provide us our luxuries. Wherever it goes, this pandemic will highlight how poverty — and our willingness to let people remain in it — presents a clear and present danger for all of us.

As dire as this situation is, though, it also presents an opportunity for us to consider the policies that got us here. The Southern politicians who have passed laws that hurt most of the people they represent have often gotten away with it by talking about their supposed values and calling themselves “pro-life.” But COVID-19 reveals the malignancy of reactionary “traditional values” that simply serve elite interests and corporate profits.

In this election year, we must compel Americans to see the pain that this virus is making ever more visible. If Southerners come together — black, white and brown — we have the ability to build a coalition that transforms public life, as we did during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Across the South, a 3-5 percent increase in participation of poor Black, white and Latino voters could fundamentally shift the political calculus. If we come together now, we can not only survive this present crisis; we also have the potential to revive the heart of American democracy.