The COVID-19 Pandemic: Re-Envisioning the American Dream

By: Susan Mayer Hirsch

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reverberate throughout the Bay Area and California, across the nation and around the world, it is clear that our response to this crisis must be both a sprint and an ultramarathon. It is also clear that, with over 10 million Americans filing for unemployment, the hospitality industry all but shuttered, a dangerously overstretched medical system, and a recession on the horizon, we all have an important role to play in helping usher our nation out of this catastrophe. But are we willing to push ourselves to think beyond this crisis to re-envision the American dream so it works for those who have been left out?

The United States is consistently ranked among the most generous nations in the world, by a metric that looks not only at giving but also volunteerism and willingness to help a stranger; in fact, even among residents of average means, a plurality of Americans say they wish they could be more generous, if not for personal financial constraints (all too often, student debt.) Furthermore, times of great upheaval and crisis have often inspired new heights in generosity of spirit and wealth, from the $185 billion sold in war bonds (in denominations ranging from just $25 to $10,000) during World War II, to the $1 billion in charity donated after the 9/11 attacks.

To be sure, we are often the most generous country in the world because we must be. Private fundraising should never be a replacement for a robust, government-supported social safety net that prioritizes the public interest. Charity and philanthropy should do what government can’t do — not what it should but isn’t doing because it’s been defunded and stigmatized for decades. And to be clear, the word philanthropy means “love of humankind,” so one need not be a billionaire to be a philanthropist. Currently, we are witnessing daily acts of human kindness and generosity of spirit, from younger people shopping for elderly or immunocompromised neighbors, to restaurants reconfiguring their kitchens and serving hot meals to front line medical personnel, to children putting rainbows and teddy bears in their windows. We are all in this together, irrespective of how much we have in our bank accounts — but it would be naive to think that the more fortunate among us are not better poised and prepared to survive.

This pandemic has ripped open our awareness of a chasm that has long existed in our nation. It has shown just how vulnerable it is to rely on unlivable hourly wages, without sick leave, and with health insurance that is tethered to a job. Many of our pandemic problems — how to provide meals to low-income public school students who rely on them daily, how to ensure the health of our seniors, and how best to protect those working essential jobs at an hourly wage — were systemic problems before COVID-19 emerged. Working together, we can help address many of these issues in the near term, but unless we are truly willing to work together with government and business to collaborate on innovative solutions, they are problems that will continue to persist long after this pandemic.

Right now, our individual and collective health as a country require us to come together for the common good as we sprint to save lives, and run the long distance race of addressing the underlying inequities this pandemic has underscored. But unlike a marathon, we don’t know exactly how long this race will last, nor exactly what kind of terrain or conditions we will encounter along the way. All we know for certain, is that the problems that have plagued our society will be magnified as we are all plagued by this novel virus. So, if you worry about education inequality, worry now about how low-income children of color will be at even more of a disadvantage on the other side of this pandemic. If you are committed to criminal justice reform, know that the incarcerated are likely to face even higher levels of COVID-19 infection. If domestic violence is of concern to you, help find support for the women who are being threatened with homelessness if they so much as cough. If you have fought to increase civic engagement, work harder now to ensure civil liberties, voting rights, and ballot access are safeguarded through this crisis that is likely to last the entirety of our current election season.

We all have something we can give, whether that means making our year-end contributions now, donating masks and gloves to medical workers, or taking time to write letters to seniors. If there is any lesson to be learned in all of this, it may very well be that not only to survive but to thrive as a society, we must begin to believe in one another again. The building blocks to a healthier and more robust society, safety net and government begin with us: trusting one another neighbor by neighbor, relying on one another block by block, and counting on one another city by city.

Susan Mayer Hirsch is CEO of Hirsch & Associates Philanthropic Advisors, a San Francisco-based consultancy firm that partners with philanthropists to direct $115 million annually to create a more equitable and uplifting world.