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Working-Class Students Doing Double Duty During Coronavirus

CUNY students struggling to complete their current courses under stressful conditions, while also working to provide for themselves and their families, exemplify preexisting inequities that the unprecedented pandemic have only amplified.

A medical worker walks near a coronavirus intake tent at the University Hospital of Brooklyn on April 14, 2020 in New York City, United States. New York has been the hardest hit city in the nation from the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One of the hardest hit populations by the coronavirus in New York City are the thousands of poor and working-class students and their families, particularly students who attend the City University of New York (CUNY).

Located in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, CUNY administrators had to scramble and adjust to the rapid spread of the virus with information changing seemingly by the minute. A delayed, and in retrospect arrogant, response to the rapid spread of the virus by New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has arguably contributed to the severity of the crisis gripping New Yorkers. The crisis has underscored that the city’s working-class and poor are the most vulnerable—now more than ever. Let’s be clear that vulnerability in this instance means individuals who are considered “essential employees” like healthcare and transit workers, grocery store cashiers, janitors, security guards, laundromat attendants, and food delivery staff among others. That is, workers who have always been on the frontlines of the service economy. Essential employees are more likely to become infected by SARS-CoV-2 and die of Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) if they suffer from pre-existing conditions like asthma and diabetes, which puts them at higher risk. Being young does not offer immunity or protection from the virus. 

The crisis has underscored that the city’s working-class and poor are the most vulnerable—now more than ever.

CUNY students, some of whom are doing double duty as students struggling to complete their current courses under stressful conditions and working to provide for themselves and their families, are in dire need of direct institutional and government assistance now and in the foreseeable future. And while we must perform financial triage in the short term—providing immediate assistance to those who need it most right now— we should also begin to think clearly about what this crisis reveals about the deep flaws inherent in a political and economic system that for the past 40 years has systematically privatized and commodified public goods like education and healthcare and in the process further marginalized the poor and the working-class of the city and across the country.

The response by CUNY, the governor, the mayor and the federal government shows the limits of a triaged response that will continue to further marginalize those populations, while also underscoring the possibility for coordinating organized and collective actions to demand a different response now and in the future. In this case, a triaged response in New York City looks like a patchwork of immediate measures to staunch the impact the coronavirus is having on students and their family members’ physical, financial, educational and mental well-being. CUNY hurriedly adjusted to bring the entire institution to a distance-learning mode—a generally ineffective means to deliver educational content, particularly for community college and low-income students—while the state and city scrambled to procure the necessary resources for healthcare facilities and its workers. Healthcare workers are in a particularly precarious position given the lack of the necessary personal protective equipment.

Not implementing social-distancing measures sooner, when other states had already done so, compounded by the lack of coronavirus testing at the federal and state levels has undoubtedly exacerbated an already critical situation. And as tempting as it may be to fawn over governor Cuomo’s daily press briefings addressing the crisis, let’s not forget that he agreed to pass an austerity budget, cutting billions to healthcare in the state and refusing to raise taxes on the wealthy. All combined, it’s the working-class who will feel the negative impact of the crisis the most. 

We need a new narrative about the responsibility government has to its citizens and the responsibility we have to each other. At the center of this narrative we should acknowledge that the crisis is already having a deep, negative impact on poor and working-class neighborhoods in New York City. Queens has been hit particularly hard given the concentration of working-class individuals living in the borough. Located in Queens, Elmhurst Hospital has become the epicenter within the epicenter of the pandemic and staff are struggling to keep up with the treatment of patients.

The severity of this crisis and the scramble to respond have thrown into relief both the possibilities of an effective and sustainable response by government institutions and the limits of the current neoliberal political and economic order. When we look at the response closely, we can see the absurdity inherent in pro-corporate, laissez-faire, free-market arguments against government intervention. We will not be able to deal with the medical and financial fallout through private, supply-side measures that disproportionally benefit corporations at the expense of workers and students. While the CARES Act provides an estimated $560 billion to individuals in the form of a means-tested formula (individuals who earned less than $75,000 last year or the year before can expect a $1200 check starting the week of April 13), the next largest beneficiary will be big corporations, with $500 billion set aside for them.

"The severity of this crisis and the scramble to respond have thrown into relief both the possibilities of an effective and sustainable response by government institutions and the limits of the current neoliberal political and economic order."

College students, it should be noted, are not eligible to receive the check because most file taxes as dependents. Private-equity firms are jockeying and positioning themselves to get a piece of the pie, while some of president Trump’s businesses stand to benefit as well. Medical staffing companies like Envision that are owned by private-equity firms, some of which have cut doctors’ pay during the crisis, may also benefit from the relief package. This may turn out to be the perfect illustration of the rich getting richer, while the poor get poorer and die in the process.

The only response that will be effective and sustainable both during and after the crisis, as Christopher Newfield points out, is one that relies on massive, direct government expenditures, similar to what we saw during the New Deal and World War II eras. In the case of higher education, among other things, we should accept no less than free college for all and student debt cancellation.

The $2 trillion CARES Act is in effect a massive corporate bailout, which includes no oversight on the implementation, disbursement, and monitoring of funds. Neil Barofsky, the former chief inspector general of the 2008 TARP program, has predicted that the current legislation will be a bonanza for corruption. The Act does include financial assistance for higher education institutions, but reportedly, no one knows when the aid will arrive. What we do know is that the Education Department has indicated the aid earmarked for student assistance can be used for “food, housing and transportation,” things that the government should subsidize after the crisis subsides.

Guttman Community College, the college I am affiliated with, is scheduled to receive $1.2 million in aid, with a minimum of $614,176 going to emergency financial aid for students. It remains to be seen how much direct assistance students will receive and how quickly. The urgency of delivering this assistance cannot be understated. We are already seeing reports of furloughs at some colleges and universities. College presidents are also reporting that they foresee having to implement austerity measures at their institutions due to projected reductions in enrollments and revenue losses. Public college and university budgets are usually the first on the chopping block in state legislatures. This crisis will make an already dire budget situation for public colleges and universities even worse.

Beyond the immediate financial impact, people’s mental health will also suffer. A recent study by CUNY’s Graduate School Public Health and Health Policy finds that the “majority of New York City residents expect a long disruption to their daily life”, with almost half reporting that they are afraid they will become infected with coronavirus. One of the most telling findings is related to household job loss and perceived risk of contracting the virus: Job loss increased the perceived risk of becoming infected. In addition, they find that job loss was also correlated with increased feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression. While economic and social stress is not something new to poor and working-class populations, the crisis has stretched many to the breaking point and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. 

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Azusena Vera, a first-year Human Services major at Guttman Community College, has been feeling the weight of crisis on her mental health. “The hardest part has been learning to cope with the new anxiety that I face”, she says. “The anxiety is now affecting my school-work which is something I am working on every day, I now try to avoid reading the news to not fall into a pit of depression because of it.” Her father works in a carwash and for financial reasons continues to go to work, putting him and her family at risk of becoming infected and adding to the stress she’s already feeling. And as an out of state student, she’s worried about having to pay for tuition in the future. Both Guttman and CUNY have established comprehensive websites pointing students to the relevant resources and to support students like Azusena. Student’s and the general public’s mental health points to another indication of existing social and economic inequality that will become further entrenched in daily life if it’s not addressed head-on.

CUNY's Response

In spite of the delay in mobilizing material and personnel resources, part of CUNY’s response so far is laudable. It should be noted that CUNY was not the only institution that was concerned about the lack of proper resources to shift operations and engage in a 100% distance-learning mode in short order. In fact, CUNY has continued to adjust. Not long after CUNY implemented a week-long “instructional recess” between March 12-18 to prepare for distance-learning, it became clear that not all students were equipped to make the jump. A “recalibration” period running from March 27-April 1 was implemented nine days after classes resumed on March 19, raising the ire of some at the university. The purpose for the recalibration was to allow for some time to distribute laptops and tablets to students who needed them in order to complete their work online.  Although a few institutions including Guttman Community College were exempt from the recalibration, most CUNY colleges had to, once again, pause and adjust their calendars. 

The recalibration period brought into sharp relief the inequality of access to technology that exists in the broader society. This “technology divide” will have a tremendous impact on who succeeds and who doesn’t this spring semester. We know that not all students have broadband access, particularly the poor and those living in rural areas. As a 2019 Pew Research Center study shows, 81% of American households own a smartphone and 58% of 18-to-29-year-olds use their phones to go online, a reason why they do not have broadband access at home. What is most striking is that 50% of respondents cited the “monthly cost of broadband access subscription is too expensive” as the reason for not having broadband access. And according to an analysis of 2015 U.S. Census data, nearly one in five teenagers cannot finish their homework because they lack high-speed internet access, with lower-income households being more likely to lack broadband access. As this data shows, now is not the time to experiment with online education

Even under normal circumstances, more online education is not a solution for the problems facing higher education institutions. In fact, the current distance-learning mode will potentially exacerbate educational inequalities that have been documented by researchers. Students in community colleges, for example, are more likely to withdraw from online courses for three reasons: “technical difficulties, increased ‘social distance’, and a relative lack of structure inherent in online courses.” In relation to low-income students, researchers cite “technological infrastructure” as an additional barrier for taking advantage of the promise of online education. 

As this research shows, on average, CUNY’s heroic move to make laptops and tablets accessible to students may not be enough to overcome the class inequality that they and their families experience at home due to the high cost of broadband access, and it may exacerbate the existing inequalities that online education produces. This digital disconnect is a reflection of deeper political and economic patterns of inequality and corporate control over consumption and democracy. 

In addition to providing access to hardware, CUNY has also rolled out an emergency fund that students can apply to during the crisis. According to CUNY, nearly half of its 275,000 degree-seeking students work, and their “median household income is about $40,000 a year, with nearly 40 percent from families earning less than $20,000”. The grant will provide a much-needed respite for some students: They will be chosen through a lottery system. Again, this is a laudable and needed intervention, but it reveals the limits of means-testing provision of goods. In addition to that, the fund relies primarily on philanthropic donations, so funding is not guaranteed. As a Guttman student who did not want their name revealed, said, it’s “unfair” that students were not eligible, for the most part, to receive the $1,200 check as part of the relief package. The student points out that “Some lost on-campus jobs or had to return home to unstable living conditions. I am sure a lot of students could have benefited from those checks”, the student concludes. Which brings us to ask: how should we respond?

What Should the Response Be?

Even if the crisis is brought under control within the next few months as we flatten the curve of infections, there is no guarantee that we will not experience a second wave of infections in the early fall into next year, particularly if we loosen stay-at-home restrictions too soon. The collective response should focus on reevaluating what it means to return to “normal”—a normal that was not sustainable to begin with—as this crisis shows. 

There should be immediate relief through direct government infusion of financial assistance to benefit workers and students. Ironically, some important components of the government’s response so far highlight not only what the government is capable of providing to its constituents, but also what we should demand as permanent policy when the crisis subsides. Providing childcare for essential employees from doctors and nurses to grocery workers is something that should remain in place. Imagine: Universal, government-funded childcare!

 Let's remember that returning to normal "isn't good enough."The government has also implemented a policy of direct payment to hospitals who are treating coronavirus patients. Already we are seeing people losing their healthcare because it is tied to their jobs. A recent study found that 1.5 million Americans have lost their health insurance due to unemployment, with an additional 7 million at risk to lose their coverage. We need government funded, universal healthcare for all. And as Bernie Sanders has argued, we should be organizing for college for all and cancelling all student debt. Part of the CARES Act legislation provides loan forgiveness for small businesses. Debt jubilee, as Michael Hudson has proposed, is a socially and economically prudent practice dating back to antiquity.

Whether government responds effectively or not, workers have already mobilized to assert their needs for protection and fair treatment. Strikes are happening all over the United States. Historically, pandemics have not stopped workers from asserting their rights against capital. “Big government” is not the problem; it is the only viable agency to provide for the public good. A federal jobs guarantee, as well as a federal paycheck guarantee, for example, should be two demands we fight for moving forward. Even representatives from liberal, centrist think tanks have pointed out that we should model a fiscal response to the crisis after the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency established in the 1930s, which employed over eight million workers in its eight-year period of operation. 

Let’s remember that returning to normal “isn’t good enough.” Our collective response should be based on principles of solidarity and the collective good of all. As E.P. Thomson pointed out over 60 years ago, “It is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality—and then some more beyond.”

Douglas A. Medina

Douglas A. Medina is an Instructor of Social and Political Sciences at CUNY's Guttman Community College. His research is focused on the political economy of higher education and the influence of race and class politics—as well as mental health—on approaches to solving poverty and inequality.

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