When Middle-Class Values Determine What’s Essential

Poor people suffer when the definition of a “life sustaining” service ignores their needs.

Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress / Lauren Bates / Getty / The Atlantic

When you are poor—and when keeping yourself, your family, and your home clean is a matter of urgency—a laundromat is not a dispensable business. I live in Pennsylvania, one of the states taking strict measures to enforce social distancing and self-quarantining. Last week, the governor’s office released a list detailing which businesses were considered “life sustaining” and which would be subject to mandatory closure. Astonishingly, laundromats were on the shutdown list, at least at first. This was yet another reminder of how the coronavirus pandemic is widening the divide between the haves and have-nots.

Which businesses and services are essential for survival? The answer depends, as so much else in American life does, on how much money you’ve got.

I grew up in severe poverty and was on public assistance from the day I was born until my high-school graduation. For almost my entire childhood, we had no washer or dryer, and often lacked hot water. From firsthand experience, I know the difference between hand-washing a few delicates and trying to wash an entire household’s laundry—or, worse yet, an entire household’s winter clothes—in a sink or tub. Using bleach or other sanitizing chemicals is difficult or even hazardous when washing clothes by hand.

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.

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.

Yet your ability to do some of these things requires that other people, such as delivery-service drivers—people who are statistically much more likely to lack paid time off or employer-provided health insurance—put themselves at risk.

I am far more privileged than my younger self was. I own a washer and dryer (and a refrigerator, which we also often didn’t have when I was a child). I also have passable internet access and more than one electronic device that I can use to go online. My husband and most of the employed people in my extended family work in blue-collar jobs: maintenance, fast food, retail—the kinds of jobs that up until now often went overlooked and underappreciated, but that are now serving as the lifeblood of our communities. They, like emergency responders and health-care workers, are the unsung heroes who are keeping society going.

But everyone sitting comfortably at home should remember that many of these workers—including relatives of mine—make minimum wage or only slightly above, and rely on one or more safety-net programs for survival. They have no financial cushion, and couldn’t stock up on a month of supplies even if they wanted to. If they are lucky enough to still be getting a paycheck, they’ll need to look for supplies on payday—and hope that the businesses essential to them are still open.