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$1,200 Is Hardly Enough to Cover Our Dignity

Strangely enough, though, the planned coronavirus checks would provide the funds to build a guillotine

By now you know the full extent of the government’s largesse, at least where it comes to individual citizens: As the coronavirus pandemic escalates, some Americans are set to receive one-time checks of $1,200, as outlined in an aid package passed by the Senate this week. This amount has set off twin curiosities: “Is that all?” and the more philosophical “Why $1,200?”

The text of the bill itself provides no guidance on how the authors arrived at the somewhat paltry figure. All it says is that those “eligible” for the full “recovery rebate” — anyone making under $75,000 per year, for the most part — get $1,200 each. So far, the best accounting I’ve found is that a 40-hour work week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour yields a monthly gross of $1,160, and they simply rounded up from there.

If so, they’ve accidentally reinforced an argument continually offered by anti-inequality progressives: You can’t actually support yourself on minimum wage, let alone a partner or family.

The median rent on a one-bedroom property in 2019 was $1,078; so for many, the stimulus checks will barely pay for a roof overhead, and for barely any time at all, especially as compared to the probable length of pandemic shutdowns

Yet there’s an insult to the $1,200 payment beyond the math — something about how it looks and how it sounds. It feels cynically honed to a specific minimum: not enough to really help, but enough that most of us can’t dismiss it as “nothing.” It’s the actual price of our dignity. You know they couldn’t deal in the high hundreds; when you’re debating a measure that costs trillions, “$900 per person” is downright pathetic. A flat thousand just means you’re saving face. Tack a final $200 on there, and you might be able to sell it.

And it’s those last two Benjamins that really stick in your craw, right? Like, here’s a thousand bucks for necessaries, and a little something extra for your trouble. Treat yourself, why not. Don’t go spending it all in once place! Hahaha! (But seriously, here’s some good news: if you’re collecting unemployment in your state, you should start to see an extra $600 a week in federal relief, up to the end of July. Also, gig workers and freelancers are now eligible for jobless benefits, and state benefits will last 13 weeks longer than usual.) 

Much as we object to the condescending sum that members of Congress have presented as a cure-all for the average person struggling to get by in a semi-apocalypse, we’re all going to accept it. That’s where the ruling class has us dead to rights: We are in no position to demand better. Our humiliation will be tedious and total, unless we figure out a way to harness this minor windfall to revolutionary action.

If only there were something that cost around $1,200, an item of symbolic as well as practical power… I mean, what if… and mind you, we’re spitballing here…

Well. Do what you want. I’m gonna check out what kind of blades I can order from Home Depot.