In thinking about social and economic issues that became more critical during the pandemic, I've tended to focus on hunger. New and terrible levels of food insecurity in the US resulted from widespread unemployment. During lockdown, employment dropped because consumption dropped. Reducing consumption had always seemed to be a good idea, but like an evil genie's gifts, having this wish granted didn't turn out the way it was hoped. Reduced consumption caused vast loss of jobs and thus dire poverty among those whose jobs became unnecessary.
Somehow, as the poor became poorer, the rich also became richer. Is this an economic law, not just an old saying? Two articles published today summarize this reality. "Amid surging worldwide poverty, planet's 500 wealthiest got $1.8 trillion richer in 2020" by Julia Conley writing in Salon.com puts it this way:
"The Bloomberg Billionaires Index recorded its largest annual gain in the list's history last year, with a 31% increase in the wealth of the richest people. The historic hoarding of wealth came as the world confronted the coronavirus pandemic and its corresponding economic crisis, which the United Nations last month warned is a "tipping point" set to send more than 207 million additional people into extreme poverty in the next decade — bringing the number of people living in extreme poverty to one billion by 2030. Even in the richest country in the world, the United States, the rapidly widening gap between the richest and poorest people grew especially stark in 2020."
Also today, Robert Reich in The Guardian wrote about "Seven Ways 2020 Left America Exposed." At the top of his list: "Workers keep America going, not billionaires." He writes:
"American workers have been forced to put their lives on the line to provide essential services even as their employers failed to provide adequate protective gear, hazard pay, or notice of when Covid had infected their workplaces. Meanwhile, America’s 651 billionaires – whose net worth has grown by more than $1tn since the start of the pandemic – retreated to their mansions, yachts and estates.
"Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, sheltered in his 165,000-acre west Texas ranch while Amazon warehouse workers toiled in close proximity, often without adequate masks, gloves or sanitizers. The company offered but soon scrapped a $2 an hour hazard pay increase, even as Bezos’ wealth jumped by a staggering $70bn since March, putting his estimated net worth at roughly $186bn as the year came to an end."
These views look at the top and the bottom of our economic spectrum, but people on all the rungs in the middle of the economic ladder have also been affected, as summarized a few days ago in a New York Times "Upshot" column, "The Year Inequality Became Less Visible, and More Visible Than Ever" by Emily Badger:
"This year, many Americans left the places where it was still possible to encounter one another. White-collar workers stopped going downtown, past homeless encampments and to lunch counters with minimum-wage staff. The well-off stopped riding public transit, where in some cities they once sat alongside commuting students and custodial workers. Diners stopped eating in restaurants, where their tips formed the wages of the people who served them.
"Americans also stopped broadly sharing libraries, movie theaters, train stations and public school classrooms, the spaces that still created common experience in increasingly unequal communities. Even the D.M.V., with its cross-section of life in a single room, wasn’t that anymore.
"Instead, people who could afford it retreated into smaller, more secure worlds during the pandemic. And that has made it harder to see all the inequality that worsened this year: the unemployment that soared even as the stock market did, the eviction threats that grew as home prices hit new highs."
Surely most people feel helpless. What can you change if your health depends on living in isolation and working from home? How can you change if your job has been eliminated and your government benefits have disappeared? How can you change if your only job possibility forces you to meet people and take risks? The defiant people who refuse to wear masks and insist on drinking in bars are not changing the distribution of wealth and poverty, only making things worse.
My thoughts are incomplete and incoherent. I feel lost.
|Luxury? The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.|
This was luxury a century ago. Luxury for the billionaires today
is never visible to ordinary people.