By James Kwak
By some measures, in the short term, COVID-19 will surely reduce inequality of wealth, and probably inequality of income as well. As a purely mechanical matter, the rich have a lot more money to lose when the stock market crashes and most sectors of the economy grind to a halt.
At the same time, however, this pandemic is throwing into stark relief how unequal the lives of Americans are today. Most of the upper-middle class and rich seem to fall into one of two categories. Those without children in the house trade suggestions on how to fill their time: virtual happy hours, virtual yoga, free streaming opera, binge TV-watching, etc. Those with children in the house trade suggestions on how to keep said children occupied so that we can get anything done or have any time to ourselves: educational apps and websites, home science experiments, live streaming from zoos and aquariums, etc.
There are exceptions, of course. Doctors generally make comfortable livings, and many of them are currently facing difficult working conditions and high risk of infection to save as many lives as possible. But the most difficult thing many rich people have to endure is figuring out how to get a Peapod or Instacart delivery slot, or finding a good recipe for canned tuna.
On the other side of the great income divide, things are very different. Tens of millions of people suddenly lost their jobs and barely have enough cash to buy groceries, let alone stock up on gourmet canned tuna. Remember, 17 percent of adults already couldn’t pay at least one of their bills even before COVID-19 hit. Economic insecurity is so widespread that a large portion of the population is just one shock away from being unable to make ends meet. Well, that shock just hit.
Then there are the people who still have jobs, whom all of us are relying on: people who work in warehouses, distribution centers, delivery services, grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals. Many of them go to work, keep our society functioning, and face an elevated risk of infection because they can’t afford to lose their jobs. Amazon warehouses, of course, are so efficient that there isn’t time to wash your hands. And Amazon workers don’t get paid sick leave—unless they test positive for COVID-19 (then they get two weeks), which is virtually impossible given the lack of testing in this country. But Jeff Bezos doesn’t even need to call out the National Guard to force his employees to go to work. As one warehouse employee said, “A lot of people are going to be there for longer. People will take as much OT as they can get, because we’re all poor.”
The vague parallels between COVID-19 and September 11 have been drawn a million times already. Then the heroes were first responders who risked their lives to save people. They were also underpaid, but at least many of them knowingly took jobs that involved risk. The people on the front lines today are doctors and nurses, of course, but also millions of low-wage workers (including many in hospitals) who have been drafted into this war and are kept there by poverty and economic insecurity.
Is this the society we want?