The Signal: After savaging the United States’ largest cities, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to race through incarcerated populations. The New York Times reports that the country’s five largest clusters of infections are all inside prisons. And since many states are still doing only minimal testing of prisoners, there are sure to be many more people behind bars with Covid-19 who haven’t yet been counted.
And it’s not only state prisons that are seeing shockingly high rates. The Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, where several hundred immigrants are being held by ICE, has seen a more than 400 percent increase in the number of positive test results this past week. While some of that may be due to an expansion in testing, it is also surely related to the fact that poor conditions in immigrant detention facilities allow the novel coronavirus to spread at a breakneck pace.
These conditions are detailed in a lawsuit filed last week that seeks to secure the release of medically vulnerable immigrant detainees from Eloy and another nearby facility, La Palma. “Infectious disease specialists warn that while conditions may be improved, no conditions of confinement in carceral settings can adequately manage the serious risk of harm for medically vulnerable individuals during the Covid-19 pandemic,” notes the lawsuit. “Even with improved conditions, Petitioners live in pods, or ‘tanks,’ and sleep in bunk beds, sharing common spaces and medical facilities with hundreds of other detainees. Even in improved conditions, Petitioners are forced to share necessities like showers, telephones, and sinks with dozens of others.”
The pandemic seems to be picking up steam again in the non-incarcerated community, too—especially in the Sunbelt. Mike Pence took his turn at manning the Noise machine by desperately trying to convince governors, on a conference call, that their numbers were heading in the right direction. As part of their everything-is-back-to-normal strategy, the GOP-led Senate and the White House are also balking at extending expanded unemployment payments past July, and showing little enthusiasm for implementing other forms of financial help to lower-income Americans.
Yet despite the Trump administration’s distractions, many state, city, and county officials are all too aware of the ongoing severity of both the public health crisis and the economic meltdown it has triggered. And so, with the feds going AWOL, state and local governments are looking for their own creative interventions to help residents weather the storm.
Some governments have launched their own eviction and utility cutoff moratoriums; others have bypassed the feds and set up their own small business loan programs, tax deferrals, and other financial relief. California is considering a program that would give tenants who are behind on rent more than a decade to pay back rent, with the state assuming the risk by giving landlords tax breaks equal to the value of the unpaid rent.
The little town of Tenino, Wash., went down a particularly imaginative route. Economically hard-pressed locals are now being given up to $300 per month in scrip, a form of alternative currency that takes the form of thin wooden blocks printed with a design on top. Tenino’s scrip can be used to purchase goods and services within city limits. It’s a model familiar to turn-of-the-20th-century company towns—where employees were sometimes paid in scrip they could only spend at company stores—as well as, in a more progressive context, self-help communities during the 19th century and the Great Depression. (The Depression is when Tenino last experimented with scrip, too.)
It’s not just individuals who need help right now, however. Cities and states are also hemorrhaging cash, and without assistance many will soon begin service reductions and mass layoffs of their own employees. Yet the US Senate and the Trump administration, once again, show little enthusiasm for helping out. Earlier this spring, McConnell flirted with the notion of forcing states to declare bankruptcy. Recently, GOP state lawmakers and the influential conservative coordinating body, the American Legislative Exchange Council, have urged Congress to block additional aid to the states.
When small towns like Tenino decide to protect their economic well-being by launching local purchasing tools, the result may be scrip or other alternative forms of local purchasing vouchers. But what if a bigger entity—a state, for example—were pushed into creating its own? At that point, you’d have a de facto currency.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. During the last financial crisis, in July 2009, California temporarily issued IOUs to vendors, taxpayers, and local governments instead of cash. This only lasted a few weeks, but financial analysts at the time compared the IOUs—officially called “warrants”—to a nascent separate currency.
In 2009, California was the world’s eighth-largest economy; today, it is the fifth-largest. If it did set up a new currency to float government functions in the face of a federal financial blockade against blue states, it would have a good shot at making it work. And since the state also passed a law allowing for the use of “alternative currencies” in 2015, it would have some legal rationale for doing so. Maybe it could even create a financial system that other, smaller states, would want to buy into.
Given the current tenor of federal politics, we must imagine new ways to use state and local power compassionately. That’s this week’s other Signal: Think locally, and dream big.