With unemployment nearing Great Depression levels and many still waiting on any government support, a new person-to-person relief economy is forming.
The responses of governments around the world to the pandemic and its resulting economic impacts are revealing and varied. As officials enact measures to keep economies afloat and keep people from financial ruin, unprecedented relief efforts are underway. Canada’s government has promised monthly payments worth about $1,450 to anyone affected; Australia plans to give about $1,000 every two weeks to each employee of any struggling business. Many nations, big and small, have guaranteed recurring payments to all citizens until it is safe to go back to work. Italy froze all rent and mortgage payments in early March, and cities and countries around the world have considered ways to follow suit—including the U.S., which ordered reduced mortgage payments for some eligible homeowners for up to a year. In late May, the European Commission proposed an $820 billion coronavirus stimulus package, focused on investments in Europe’s “Green Deal” industries like renewable energy. Around the globe, nations are working to relieve their citizens from the sudden financial burdens as a result of COVID-19.
While the U.S. stimulus package wears the largest price tag at $2.3 trillion, and the oil industry and other mega-corporations are pumping billions of stimulus dollars through their businesses, the economy is teetering with unemployment rates nearing Great Depression levels. Individual Americans have only been promised a one-time payment of $1,200, and many have been waiting for that check for months. The unemployment system—which was expanded in an attempt to cover the fifth of Americans who are self-employed contract workers—is overloaded and rife with reports of errors. More than 30 million people have filed initial claims since mid-March, and for many the unemployment system has proved to be unresponsive.
The virus has arguably impacted the U.S. worse than anywhere else in the world, and while some Democrats have proposed additional supportive response measures like $2,000 monthly stimulus checks for all until the crisis subsides, bailouts for student loan borrowers and rent and mortgage cancellations for certain periods, Republicans have appeared uninterested in additional stimulus and the Trump administration has been pushing for an early reopening of the economy long before there is a go-ahead by health officials. It’s likely any new government relief will take time to reach people, if it happens at all.
And as the pandemic most severely impacts the same communities that have been historically exploited and oppressed by racist and xenophobic practices in this country, long-needed conversations are emerging around which industries and workers are truly essential to life’s basic functions, and how we treat and compensate those workers in our society.
As playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler) put it in an Instagram post on May 18:
“The virus is revealing the violent, broken, greed and growth systems that we have been both tolerating and forced to live with for far too long. As we #RiseInGlobalSolidarity to meet this moment, we now MUST ASK ourselves; ‘what is essential’, ‘who is essential’, ‘what would it mean to live with just what is essential’, and ‘how would we value, protect and uplift those who are doing the essential work’?”
Out of the necessity of the moment have emerged some extraordinary, citizen-led relief efforts. Mutual aid volunteers have been mobilizing across the country since the virus hit, with those who are able bringing free groceries and other basics to the people who are hardest hit. And, as the divide between the employed and the jobless deepens in America, a sort of citizens’ fiscal relief effort has also developed. At one end of the trend are problematic top-down handouts and money giveaways by wealthy influencers on Instagram, as explored in a New York Times piece in April. At the other end of the trend is an opportunity for a longstanding, citizen-led movement toward wealth redistribution to step into the spotlight. This solidarity economy movement aims to democratize economic systems by way of localized efforts and supports the most marginalized Americans. As this crisis makes the glaring gaps and biases in our current systems impossible to ignore, some argue now is the time to push for a new, solidarity-oriented economy.
With invitations from influencers on Instagram and other apps asking for people out of work to “drop your Venmo in the comments,” a good samaritan giveaway economy is developing online. Out-of-work, struggling Americans have turned to social media to ask strangers for small bailouts—like basic grocery money or help paying the rent. The trend exposes the deepening divide between the employed and the jobless in America.
As strangers are stepping in to pay for strangers’ bills, a “samaritan economy” is emerging through apps like Instagram, NextDoor and Venmo. The trend is detailed in an April article in Utah’s Deseret News by Jennifer Graham, who writes:
“Using apps like Venmo and NextDoor, people who have money are giving it to strangers who don’t. Others are paying service providers, such as hairdressers and pet sitters, for services they didn’t receive. And a nonprofit that has given cash to struggling families in Africa for more than a decade [called GiveDirectly] has launched a program to quickly get help to Americans who are spiraling toward insolvency.”
People with significant online followings have been encouraging followers in need to request financial aid from fellow followers, and comment threads across social media channels are full of requests. As Graham’s article notes, Yashar Ali, a journalist with 621,000 Twitter followers, tweeted in favor of person-to-person aid in late March in a thread that has gone viral.
Other online influencers, some of whom are flaunting their cash to spare, have been pushing the concept of giving away money in a slightly different direction, as explored in the New York Times article “Everyone Is Giving Away Cash on Instagram.” The article explores how some influencers are capitalizing on the crisis for self-promotion