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22 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:42pm

The pandemic has made this much clear: those running the US have no idea what it costs to live here

 When was the last time Steve Mnuchin had to worry about rent?

By Emily Tamkin

The complaint that politicians are out of touch with ordinary people is a cliché of US politics. It’s the reason presidential candidates embarrass themselves with out-of-the-ordinary trips to the grocery store during campaigns. It’s the reason Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, vowed: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” And it’s the reason people make a big deal out of the cost of a politician’s haircut. We are obsessed with the idea that political elites are separate from the people over whom they rule.

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But the coronavirus pandemic has made clear that there is a grain of truth in the cliché. Namely: the people ruling this country have no idea what it costs to live in it.

The most egregious example comes from Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s secretary of the Treasury. On 25 March the Senate passed a $2trn relief package. Its measures included loans for businesses, an expansion of unemployment benefits, and direct payments of $1,200 to Americans earning up to $75,000. In a television interview on 29 March, Mnuchin said: “I think the entire package provides economic relief overall for about ten weeks.”

According to a 2019 report from Business Insider, based on information compiled from property sites, the median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC – where Mnuchin and I work – is $2,347. A person sharing their apartment could thus be reasonably expected to use their entire stimulus cheque to pay one month’s rent, after which, in fairness to Mnuchin, they would have $26.50 left over.

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Mnuchin has defended his “ten weeks” comment as not referring solely to the direct payments but including business loans and benefits. But it would be unsurprising if he did not know that $1,200 is, if one is lucky, just enough to cover one month’s rent. Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs banker and Hollywood producer. His wife, Louise Linton, made headlines early in his tenure as treasury secretary for posting on Instagram a photo of herself coming off a government plane and tagging the various brands she was wearing, including Hermès and Tom Ford. When was the last time Steve Mnuchin had to worry about rent?

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Ahead of the stimulus deal, some Republican senators worried that it might encourage people not to work. If the government made things too easy, they argued, workers might become lazy. And Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said it might incentivise people not to show up to work.

Leave aside the fact that you cannot collect unemployment benefits if you have quit your job without “good cause” – the definition of which varies state to state – and were not fired from it. Who, exactly, are these people trying to scam the government in the middle of a pandemic? The millions who have lost their jobs? The grocery store workers who are making sure that there are enough goods for desperate and increasingly irate shoppers, and yet aren’t given proper protective equipment? The Amazon warehouse workers, easily replaced because there are millions desperate for employment, despite multiple reports of horrendous working conditions? Who are these people whom Johnson, who has been in the Senate for almost a decade, imagines will so easily slip into a state of sloth?

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, meanwhile, has said that it will not return until 4 May, “absent an emergency”. Democrats and Republicans are, at present, going round in circles as they debate a small business bill. Democrats blocked a Republican version, then tried to add in money for states and hospitals, and funding for food assistance programmes. 

Republicans, in turn, rejected that, arguing that such programmes are unrelated (how cities and states are unrelated to small businesses is not entirely clear, but that is another column for another day). Some spend time pointing fingers at the other party; others insist a conclusion is “close” as progressives reiterate that they’re still unsatisfied.

One cannot know for sure what the people attempting to govern this country think when they read that the International Monetary Fund predicts we are facing the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Perhaps, as the Republican senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler did after an early, closed-door coronavirus briefing, they are wondering which stocks to dump. Perhaps they are worrying about losing their jobs. Perhaps they really are sitting up at night thinking about their constituents.

But for 22 million Americans, this is not an intellectual exercise; it is an application for unemployment benefits. Almost every sector has been hit by the crisis, and each is filled with people who have sustained their lives by getting up and going to work every day, and who can’t do that right now without endangering themselves and others.

It is easy to go for a photo op in a grocery store. It is easy to pounce on a politician from the opposite party for getting a haircut. It is impossibly easy to promise that the forgotten men and women will no longer be forgotten. It is, evidently, a little harder for the people invested with power in the United States to calculate how far $1,200 can be stretched, and to think about how it’s divided between rent and groceries and – please, no – any unforeseen emergencies. 

The irony, of course, is that for millions of Americans, that’s the part that comes quite naturally. They know how to make something from nothing, to take what little their state has given them and try to stretch it and make it go further. Even before the corona-virus pandemic, they did it all the time. Unlike the people ostensibly serving them, they had to.

This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb