After advocates raised alarms about how shutting down laundromats would hurt poor people in my state, Governor Tom Wolf’s office reversed course quickly. But the episode clearly revealed dynamics that are in force from coast to coast: In a fast-moving global health crisis that threatens everyone’s well-being, the day-to-day needs of poor people are mostly unfamiliar to the people in charge, just as the kind of adjustments that middle-class people take for granted—such as working from home and having food delivered—are unavailable to low-income families.
Out in the world, public officials and corporations have made some curious and seemingly arbitrary assumptions about which businesses are essential for daily survival. My house is surrounded on three sides by coal mines, which were briefly required to cease operations. Beer distributors, however, stayed open. Electronics stores were required to close, although at least one video-game retailer had been (laughably) trying to argue that it qualifies as essential.
But the pattern of ignoring the realities of life for the working poor repeats itself again and again. Most fast-food restaurants near my home have closed their doors to walk-in customers completely; only the drive-through window is open. The shuttering of dining rooms prevents people from gathering in groups and helps employees better maintain distance from the public. Yet it also creates a challenge for people without cars, as most drive-through places don’t allow walk-up orders, for safety reasons.
Life gets harder when everyone but you has Wi-Fi at home and a phone with a generous data plan. Up until about a year ago, I didn’t own a smartphone. Even now that I do, neither I nor anyone in my household has used food-delivery apps, which in the current crisis have become a preferred way of getting food to the home. If you don’t have a credit card—as many poor people do not—good luck using these apps. Meanwhile, bookstores are supposed to close down—none is currently open within 45 minutes of me—but if you have an Amazon account, a tablet or a laptop, and reliable internet access, you can still buy and read almost anything you like.
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I understand why libraries must close. By design, they make social distancing almost impossible, and keeping tables, shelves, and other surfaces sanitized day after day is extremely difficult. Still, the widespread closure of public libraries deeply saddens me. Libraries were a lifeline—and often a desperately needed safe place to escape—when I was a child. Today, libraries are one of the few places where people without computers or reliable internet service can go for up-to-date information.
If you have money and resources (such as smartphones and credit cards), you can lead a relatively comfortable and safe existence under a lockdown. It’s actually fairly easy. You can consult with your doctor using telemedicine, pay your bills online, and even participate in yoga and meditation sessions via Zoom. You can order food, liquor, and other supplies from the safety and comfort of your own living room.