Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How to build a caring economy for post-pandemic California

Faced with rebuilding California’s economy – one founded upon caring and fairness – let’s ignore Wall Street and ivory tower economists. More can be learned from selfless frontline workers, like Danielle Mahabir.

[caption id="attachment_17005" align="alignright" width="300"] Child care worker with young children (Photo by Elizabeth del Rocío Camacho) (Photo by Elizabeth del Rocío Camacho)[/caption]

Donning sterile gloves and gown, nurse Mahabir, 34, elbows open the door into her intensive-care unit in San Jose. Hot-running ventilators sustain over a hundred patients inside, recovering from strokes, brain injuries or COVID-19 – an eerie climate inside, like an “arid forest waving in the summer breeze,” Mahabir said.

But Mahabir had to pause the job she loves with the pandemic raging six weeks ago, shuttering her 3-year-old’s preschool. Then, Gov. Gavin Newsom lent a hand, incentivizing child care to reopen , granting hazard pay for teachers opting to aid other essential workers, “lifting a tremendous weight off my shoulders,” Mahabir said.

Short-term, we need a contagion of inventive policies to get Californians back to work. Long-term, the nagging pandemic offers a teachable moment for turning over the moral cornerstones of our economy. This tiny virus prompts a big question: Will business as usual buoy caregivers like Mahabir, or simply protect the wealthy and America’s embrace of private gain?

Women comprise more than half the nation’s essential workers , many laboring in life-giving clinics and hospitals, like Mahabir, yet paid minuscule wages. Nursing assistants earn less than $15 per hour. Home aides for the elderly make even less.

We can’t expect Washington – run by a president empty of empathy – to humanize the economy’s foundations. Federal aid flows to firms like Ritz Carlton, somehow deserving a $126 million forgivable loan. Deregulated financiers again reap high profits from corporate borrowers holding risky collateral, a lesson unlearned from the last recession.

Newsom’s budget fix , detailed last week, earnestly plugs a $54 billion hole in lost state revenues, while “ protecting values that we hold dear .” But precisely what economic values will animate the makeover of California’s crumpled economy?

The governor displays plenty of heart and short-term pragmatism: expanding child care for first responders and summer activities for school-age kids, steady aid for the sick or jobless. But his budget proposal would also slash school funding . Pre-k teachers would suffer pay cuts, if ratified by the Legislature, many barely earning a livable wage.

Newsom and legislative leaders might consider tax increases to help close the historic budget gap. High-income earners and large corporations go unscathed, enjoying the ability to work from home or sell on-line, while continuing to enjoy ample tax loopholes.

One recent analysis reveals how $63 billion in yearly tax breaks short the state treasury, benefits enjoyed by big business and wealthy taxpayers. The obscure Water’s Edge loophole allows multinational firms to exempt foreign earnings from their tax bill, costing the state $2.4 billion annually in lost receipts. We can no longer afford these special favors.

Nor have political leaders nudged major employers to stretch jobs to more workers. This can be done by lengthening paid family leave for young parents, financed under the federal bailout . Employers should retain health coverage for staff who must work part-time, until their children return to school. A caring economy would ease payroll taxes and offset with higher levies on financial trades and luxury consumption.

Caring employers have opened child care facilities for their staff, as did UCLA-Olive View hospital in Los Angeles. It’s a godsend for those on the frontlines, like surgical nurse Sonia Caudillo, a single mother of three, who scrambled after her neighborhood pre-k and public school shut down as well.

The persisting plague offers many lessons. One not to forget is the compassion and struggles of health workers like Caudillo and Mahabir. These women teach us plenty about courage and compassion, inviting a caring economy that lifts us all.

[This commentary was originally published in CalMatters.]