The Year Inequality Became Less Visible, and More Visible Than Ever
That year, many Americans left the places where it was still possible to meet. Employees stopped going downtown, past homeless camps and lunch tables with minimum wage staff. The wealthy stopped using public transport where they once sat next to commuting students and supervisors in some cities. The guests stopped eating in restaurants where their tips were the reward of the people who served them.
Americans also stopped sharing libraries, cinemas, train stations, and public school classes. These spaces still created shared experiences in increasingly disparate communities. Even the DMV with its cross-section in a single room was no longer that.
Instead, people who could afford withdrew to smaller, safer worlds during the pandemic. And that made it harder to see all the inequality that has worsened this year: unemployment, which has soared even on the stock market, the eviction threats that have increased with home highs.
In other ways, however, the inequality that already existed in the economy became more visible this year than ever before. With delivery services, restaurant couriers and personal shopping apps, low-wage workers – in far greater numbers – came right to the front door of the wealthy. When they stood there in masks, their economic precariousness was exposed.
“These apps force stable living people to face the instability of working class life – very directly and for their own benefit,” said Louis Hyman, Cornell economic historian. “Before these apps, it was easy to pretend this wasn’t really happening,” he said of the yawning gaps in the economy. “There were ways to imagine that these delivery guys weren’t symbolic of anything.”
We never thought too much about the Domino’s delivery drivers, he said. They were just high school kids. They weren’t until the 2000s.
Historians watch this moment with a difficult question: will there be wider demand for structural reforms to eradicate inequality, or another withdrawal of the wealthy from their problems? Recessions can make it clear where the economy is headed. The companies and industries that thrive in them often assume how society will change in the years to come.
The advertising industry grew during the Great Depression as companies battled for scarce consumer dollars and sold escapees in alcohol, tobacco, and entertainment. The advertising industry anticipated post-war American consumer culture. Accounting firms and banks also boomed from the New Deal era regulation that emerged from the Depression.
Later, in the recession in the early 1990s, even medium-sized jobs were cut and outsourced, and consulting firms had to deal with this shift. And from the rubble of the foreclosure crisis, institutional investors foresaw a new market for single-family homes.
Today, the thriving companies – some with flashy IPOs – have taken advantage of both the unique circumstances of social distancing and the longer-term trends of a society that is drifting apart. These companies allow you to have a meeting without going to the office, buy a home without handing over a real estate agent, eat restaurant meals without going into a restaurant, enjoy entertainment without the theater, without retail shopping.
They “remind us of a long historical process of social fragmentation that is more evident today than ever before,” said David Kennedy, a Stanford historian who has written extensively on the Great Depression. “It seems to me that they show how easy it is and how big the market is in our society for the kind of services that set us apart.”
Dec. Dec. 28, 2020 at 9:20 am ET
There is, however, a tension between the isolation of the wealthy and the visible dependence of many of their amenities on low-wage work. Professor Kennedy is deeply pessimistic that this will lead to real change. The Great Depression caused pain across the economy and lasted a decade, opening a larger political window for reform.
“It has been a very long time since people across the income spectrum believed that acting in the collective interest would be more beneficial than acting in the individual interest,” said Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington.
In Seattle around her, people started bringing up these issues even before the pandemic. Young technicians were avid early adopters of delivery services and apps like Uber and Lyft. And there is already a clear dissonance between the gig workers’ experience and rising real estate prices and the shiny new build associated with the technology boom in Seattle.
That was before it became uncomfortably clear that the gig workers were now also risking their health.
Back in the spring, Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote an article for The Atlantic in which she expressed the hope that America, like the New Deal era, could respond to economic disasters by transforming itself into a fairer society. It was early in the pandemic when everyone was still celebrating the new heroes of the economy: the grocery store clerks, the delivery workers, the janitors, and the frontline nurses. That was before the pandemic became fully politicized, before the tech IPOs and Congress allowed unemployment benefits to be phased out.
As the pandemic dragged on and the divide in American experience widened, Professor Cohen has become less certain that lessons of empathy and unity from the Great Depression apply today. We’re further apart now than we were six months ago, much less before the pandemic.
“Just think of the roads and where they took you – you went in and had coffee in a place where you saw people paid by the hour rather than monthly,” said Professor Cohen. Those little moments disappeared. There were no homeless people on the pavement in the bourgeois neighborhoods and retreats where remote workers retreated.
“It seems like there were fewer and fewer of these interactions, but they were really important just to expand the social world one lives in,” she said. “Maybe that’s the scariest dimension of it. The opportunities to interact with people who are not like you have shrunk. “
Still upbeat, however, Professor Hyman points out that there’s something powerful about how visible inequality arises when an employee places a customer’s Whole Foods order.
“That has made the industrial economy a better economy in part: pictures of children working in factories, the desperate poor of the 1930s,” he said. “Visibility is a good thing that people are forced to face it.”
His argument is not that consumers should feel bad about ordering take-away or having their groceries delivered. It’s not the services that are the problem, he said; It is the insecurity and low wages that come with doing this in an economy with few opportunities to build wealth and limited access to benefits. Factory work wasn’t great either. What we romanticize about it are the livable wages and benefits it offered for a while.
“The history of the 1930s doesn’t make the jobs of the 1920s work any better,” he said. “It creates new systems for the industrial workforce.”
After the pandemic, some restaurant and retail jobs are unlikely to be returning. And those who did it can join the growing ranks of logistics workers: people moving things around warehouses or moving passengers around cities or moving packages and taking them around in your neighborhood. This is a very different kind of workforce that needs new systems.