Ex-Democratic Whip David Bonior on Poverty, COVID-19 and Congress


Former U.S. Representative David Bonior served Michigan in Congress for 26 years. Eleven years as the Democratic whip, the number two position in the leadership. A Democratic powerbroker during his tenure in Washington D.C., Bonior, emerged as an unrelenting voice in the congressional halls of power championing environmental issues as well as income inequality.  

In this interview with Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, Bonior calls on Congress to pass Medicare for All legislation to deal with the crisis of public health, says the federal government should use the coronavirus pandemic to shine the light on poverty with anti-poverty programs targeted at cities like Detroit and New Orleans that are currently being ravaged by the virus. Read on.

PULSE: Has Congress acted appropriately to the coronavirus?

DAVID BONIOR: Yes and No. Congress is a slow moving beast like a bear but when pushed like a bear it can move fast. A black bear can run 20 miles an hour. The relief packages so far have been passed in relatively short time given the global nature of the crisis and the slowness of how Congress usually acts. The size of the packages are the largest in our history. The money to individuals $1200 to adults and $500 per child will help but for only a couple of months to pay bills and buy food.  But for those laid off from work, the $600 added to their unemployment compensation is a great idea and big help combined with theunemployment compensation in each state. Many workers who were laid off can sustain themselves and their families at these rates for up to four months.  If and when they get their money. Remember, 80% of Americans live pay check to pay check. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans/grants to small business—500 or less employees— is also large but not large enough—another $300 billion on top of the first round of $350 billion will be passed this week and badly needed. 

Here is the kicker. Delivery of these moneys to individuals and business has been slow. Many have yet to receive a penny while the large businesses like airlines and large restaurant chains like Ruth Chris, have gobbled up the first batch of relief. President Trump is an unmitigated disaster. He only thinks of his selfish self. Politics over everything else. Science and justice be damned in his mind. He is not acting like a war leader but instead is governing like a criminal oligarchy. But he can be moved. The governors, including Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan), just pressured him to do more at the federal level on testing. But in the interim people are dying and losing hope. 

PULSE: What should Congress specifically do to end the nightmare of the crisis? 

DAVID BONIOR: A.  Congress should appropriate money and logistical know how to deliver tests, gets their results- (both tests for finding out if people have the virus and also blood antibody test for those who have the virus and are recovering.) Testing is key. And the money needed for tests should be appropriated. There seems to be a growing agreement on this. 

B. Tracing- We need a government financed tracing program to contain the virus from spreading. At least 100,000 people doing this work. 

C. Vaccines- There are a number of vaccine trials underway with studies of existing drugs that may help. Pressure in this area is needed to get it done and make sure the drugs/vaccines are safe. 

 D. Food- We should make sure the most vulnerable are fed by opening up our school kitchens for neighborhood families. We do this now but the schools and cities are not reimbursed for the adults just the kids in low income communities. Put José Andrés (founder of the World Central Kitchen) in charge of this.

E. Health- Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is right about Medicare for All. Former Vice President Joe Biden is reaching out to the U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ folks by offering Medicare to those 60 and older rather than the present 65. At the minimum they should bargain to get it down to 50-55 years of age. Many people cannot work beyond 50-55. Their bodies are worn down. That is when they really need it. Reimbursements to hospitals for costs needed. Also heroic pay for those frontline workers who are risking their lives.

F. Labor- Pass a new NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) like they did in 1935 making it easier for unions to organize. Workers need a voice for their own safety. 

G. Safety- Equipment is needed especially for all frontline workers in hospitals, fire departments, transportation, grocery and food workers and undocumented agricultural worker. 

PULSE: There are calls for more funding of hospitals. Should that dominate the next COVID-19 relief bill in Congress?

Hospital relief. Yes it should be part of the bill this week. States need federal help because States have constitutional budget requirements. In this extraordinary situation the Feds need to rescue state health needs. By the way, this whole experience is a great example why the Feds should not have a constitution balanced budget requirement. They need the flexibility in wartime or in a pandemic to spend. 

PULSE: The coronavirus stimulus has been criticized as a giveaway to corporations and little to struggling taxpayers. Do you share that view?

DAVID BONIOR: That is too simple of an analysis. Yes , of course some of the money- like the tax “relief” package Trump passed and signed, goes disproportionately to the wealthy. And some of that is true in this stimulus bill. Some safeguards have been written into the stimulus, like large corporations cannot ( as they did in the stimulus package during the Great Recession) buy back their stock with the money the government gives them. The new president in 2021 should put Elizabeth Warren or Robert Reich in charge of this.

Rep. David Bonior (D-MI) and John Boehner (R-OH) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Jan. 5, 1997 in Washington D.C. Boehner later served as Speaker of the House. Planetpix/Alamy Stock Photo.

Robert Reich, former US Labor Secretary said COVID-19 has exposed a class divide. Others say the national health crisis has also unearthed many long ignored issues affecting the underprivileged in American society. What is your take?  

DAVID BONIOR: Secretary Reich is absolutely correct. This crisis has exposed once again the class and racial divide in our country. The horrific disparity of deaths by race is glaring and disgusting. In Michigan 14% of the state is African American and 40% of the COVID- 19 deaths are African Americans. This pattern is playing out across our country. We need to do something about this. It requires action on many fronts especially health and education. Most of the frontline workers are from the working class. 

PULSE: COVID-19 has magnified health inequities in urban communities like Detroit, which are suffering the most from the pandemic. The number of blacks who are dying from the virus more than any other group in the nation, underscores America’s ongoing problem with poverty and race. What should the federal government’s response be in black cities that are taking a hit from the pandemic?

DAVID BONIOR: I heard this morning the results of an NPR study on the question of race and the pandemic which concludes, not surprisingly that “people of color” blacks and browns primarily, are dying at large percentages compared to whites. Often these communities are front line workers, who have hard jobs most of their lives and who have developed diabetes and respiratory health problem that made them targets for the virus. Congress needs to pass Medicare for All. And there needs to be a huge expenditure on health education especially targeted for communities with high health and mortality rates. We have studied this  issue “to death” and now is the time to act. Also, a high profile national committee composed of people with science , education, and health backgrounds should be created to investigate and report with recommendations. With a short timeline to report so actions can commence. High visibility so the country can be reeducated on good health habits. I would highlight two cities for the federal government to initially target for health programs. Detroit in the North and New Orleans in the South.

PULSE: In 1967, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr., went to Stanford University and delivered “The Other America” speech. He said, “If we spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an ill-conceived war in Vietnam and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, we can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet, right now.” Do you think COVID-19 has given our government a reality check about the need to make serious investments in fighting poverty?

DAVID BONIOR: When I was Senator John Edwards presidential campaign manager I convinced him to announce his run for president in New Orleans and focus on the issue of poverty. We did that in the 9th Ward that was  ravaged by poverty as well as Katrina.  We have a chance now to shine the light on existing poverty. I have been active in the livable wage campaigns and minimum wage campaigns around the country. And we have had some success. The whole nature of working is changing before our eyes and there might be room for a discussion of a guaranteed wage like former presidential candidate Andrew Yang advocates. I have also been involved in homeless reform in Washington D.C. with a program called N Street Village. We need a cabinet level position in the federal government to coordinate poverty efforts.

PULSE: When  you represented Michigan in Congress, you championed a lot of issues from income inequality to clean water. Detroit, is not only one of the largest poverty cities in the nation, but it is also notorious for aggressive water shutoffs on poor people. Some activists are raising concern about the issue in the wake of the coronavirus. What should Detroit officials do?

DAVID BONIOR: The right to water is an international human right. It should be available at no cost to low income families. Subsidized at the federal level and financed from the weapons programs that Dr. King referred to in his Stanford speech.

PULSE: Given how President Trump initially downplayed the virus, do you believe the US has learned how to be better prepared for future pandemics?

DAVID BONIOR: We had been warned about the likelihood of the pandemic. Even President George W Bush gave a major speech about it in 2005. Other imminent scientists have warned us as well. Yet we were not prepared at all. Massive dereliction here on the part of the government. So, I now expect that the world community will have standards for safety equipment, hospital beds, stand by hospital personnel, easily assimilated temporary hospitals with adequate beds. Better coordination is needed between the local, state and federal governments as well as many new laws to manage the economy during a crisis. There will probably be investments in the study of immunology and in research labs. 

PULSE: President Trump announced he is halting US support to the World Health Organization. Where does that leave the US in the global fight against the pandemic? 

DAVID BONIOR: I have had my own run- ins with the WHO ( an arm of the United Nations) over the issue of depleted uranium during the Iraq war. However, it was a bad decision for Trump to take them on in the middle of the peak of the pandemic. But there needs to be a review of their work and effectiveness.

PULSE: How much do you think the coronavirus pandemic is going to change America and do you feel the nation will return to normalcy?

DAVID BONIOR:  I hope like hell it does not “return to normalcy” . Normalcy is what got us to this point of the Trump presidency and the rampage of the coronavirus. We need big structural change in America. And it is coming in the world of work, in science ( global environmental crisis) and now in health. Education will evolve from all of this. Many changes are coming because without them civilizations will not survive. But I am a man of hope who in times like these take comfort in Galatians: “ Let us not loose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary.”

One comment

  1. David Bonior still showing the influence of his religious education and his fight for the working class. We need more leaders with his vision

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