Pa. Rep Summer Lee Says Opening Up State’s Economy Too Soon Puts Black And Lower-Income Residents At Risk


Pa. Rep Summer Lee Says Opening Up State’s Economy Too Soon Puts Black And Lower-Income Residents At Risk

Last week the UrbanKind Institute and 1Hood Media sponsored a virtual town hall on what the COVID-19 Pandemic meant for black Pittsburghers. In its inaugural event panelists focused on dispelling myths and calling attention to the importance of including racial data, which the county started collecting just this week. 

This week the town hall included elected officials to gauge the state response to the pandemic and how it will impact the most vulnerable residents. 

To discuss matters at a state level, Rep Summer Lee (D-Allegheny) joined the panel. Lee expressed frustration with her colleagues, pointing out that as the town hall was taking place, capital lawmakers were holding a session. 

“As you can see I’m definitely not in Harrisburg because I don’t play about my health and my family and community’s health,” Lee said.  

When speaking of her colleagues, Lee expressed frustration in particular with Republican lawmakers who she said wouldn’t entertain measures such as rent freezes 

“What they’re essentially trying to do is put economic power and production on top of people,” Lee said. “We know that in our racial capitalist system that’s how it always is but to see it play out in real-time is really frightening because we know that we’re starting to flatten the curve in Pennsylvania.”

Lee pointed out those individuals who’d have to return to work the fastest would be lower-income and black residents. Additionally, she finds this ill-advised as in the commonwealth they’d been progressing in flattening the curve, progress which could be undone by reopening prematurely.

“When we adopted these measures we knew some people would see it as kind of too much, the curse in that is if we get out on the other side and we preserve life and our loved ones have not died then people would say it’s too much,” Lee said. “But if we didn’t do it and people did die it’s almost a lose, lose situation. As we’re seeing the curve flatten it’s unconscionable right now for people to open up businesses.”

Lee lamented that at the state level “nothing” substantive had been done to protect the people who’d been hurt by the economic consequences of the pandemic. She pointed to the legislation she’d sponsored with regard to a rent and eviction moratorium, a rent and mortgage freeze bill, and an auto-repossession bill which had seen little traction as examples.

Furthermore, when speaking of essential workers’ low wages Lee was frustrated that so little had been done at the state level to raise the minimum wage.

“At the state level we have the power to do some of these things,” Lee recalled. “At the state level we could’ve raised the minimum wage, when we were fighting last year to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 they weren’t even trying to budge a little.”

Lee called for a UBI, meaning a universal basic income, a model for providing all citizens of a country or other geographic area with a given sum of money, regardless of their income, resources or employment status. 

At the county level, County Councilor Olivia Bennet voiced concern for voting procedures. Originally, the primary election which was scheduled for April 28 was rescheduled for June in light of the pandemic. Bennett joins the ranks of officials encouraging voting through the mail in the name of public health. 

“If we’re going to be consistent with our messaging and actually live that out then we should not be encouraging people to come out to the polls,” Bennet said.

Bennet explained it’d pose a risk for the workers and voters. Additionally, with the impending changes meant to take place, she worried there wasn’t enough time to implement them properly with so many voting machine demonstrations having been canceled. 

 “This is also a year we’re changing machines,” Bennet said. “How are we training folks to work these new machines when we can’t even get our people together to train?”

Other panelists pointed out that the individuals most likely to vote were the elderly, who are in the at-risk category during the pandemic.

“Why would we want to put our elders in danger when we could just vote through the mail?” Jasiri X wondered. “We definitely want you to vote, but we want to be safe”

Another cause for concern for Bennett was for incarceration individuals. On April 10, Governor Tom Wolf authorized the release of 1,800 inmates from Pennsylvania state prisons. However Bennett remained concerned about individuals still in Allegheny County Jail and the conditions people heading home had encountered. 

 “I think you should always be thinking of the bottom up and If you’re thinking from the bottom up you should think of the individuals that can’t advocate and defend themselves” Bennett said. 

Bennet pointed out that in prisons social distancing procedures frequently hadn’t been adopted and staff lacked the proper protective equipment. She added that although people frequently consider prison as being separate from society, the correctional officers were also a part of the community. 

Jamil Bey, the ceo of the Urbankind, pointed to the current struggle Cook County Jail in Chicago is facing with roughly 500 individuals who’ve tested positive for the virus as an example of potential consequences should states not decarcerate and supply prisons with the proper equipment.

Currently the jail’s rate of infection is higher than almost anywhere else in the U.S.

Jasiri X, the CEO of 1Hood Media, pointed out that if inmates contracted infections once released it could have a detrimental impact on the community. Furthermore on a human writes level, he asserted that the price for incarceration shouldn’t be one’s health.

“Allegheny County jail shouldn’t be a death sentence, especially if you’re on some technicality or small thing,” Jasiri X said. “It’s hypocritical to say social distancing out here for us, but then you have a place where you can actually put rules in place and enforce social distancing and you don’t do that. It’s saying their lives don’t matter as much.” 

The Urbankind Institute and 1HoodMedia will likely hold a similar town hall next week. 

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