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The year in which inequality became less visible and more visible than ever

This year, many Americans left places where it was still possible to meet. White-collar workers have stopped going downtown, past homeless settlements and food outlets with minimum wage staff. The better-off have stopped using public transport, where in some cities they once teamed up alongside students and guardians. Dinners stopped eating in restaurants, where their tips formed the wages of the people who served them.

Americans also stopped widely sharing libraries, cinemas, train stations, and public school classrooms, spaces that still created a common experience in increasingly unequal communities. Even the DMV, with its glimpse of life in one room, was no longer that.

Instead, people who could afford it retreated to smaller, safer worlds during the pandemic. And that made it harder to see all of the inequalities that worsened this year: unemployment skyrocketing as did the stock market, eviction threats that rose as house prices hit new highs.

In another way, however, the inequalities already present in the economy have become more visible than ever this year. With delivery services, restaurant couriers and personal shopping apps, low-wage workers were now – in far greater numbers – on the threshold of the have-nots. Standing there, masked, their economic precariousness was exposed.

“What these apps do is force people who live stable lives to deal with the instability of working class life – very directly and for their own benefit,” said Louis Hyman, economic historian at Cornell. “Before these apps, it was easy to pretend it wasn’t really happening,” he said of the gaping economy gap. “There were ways to imagine that these delivery men weren’t emblematic of anything.”

We never thought too much about the Domino delivery drivers, he said. They were just high school students. Until, in the 2000s, they weren’t.

Historians view this moment with a thorny question: will there emerge a broader demand for structural reforms to tackle inequality, or a further withdrawal of the rich from their problems? Recessions, they say, can clarify where the economy is going. Businesses and industries that thrive during these times often anticipate how society will evolve in the years to come.

The advertising industry flourished during the Great Depression, as companies battled for scarce consumer dollars and sold escape into alcohol, tobacco, and entertainment. The advertising industry anticipated postwar American consumer culture. Accounting firms and banks have also exploded as a result of New Deal-era regulations stemming from the Depression.

Later, the recession of the early 1990s heralded the downsizing and outsourcing of jobs, even of the middle class, and the rise of consulting firms to handle this change. And out of the wreckage of the foreclosure crisis, institutional investors have predicted a new market for single-family rental homes.

Today, successful companies – some with dazzling IPOs – have exploited both the special circumstances of social distancing and the longer-term trends of a failing company. These companies allow you to have a meeting without going to the office, buy a house without making a real estate agent happy, eat out without going into a restaurant, enjoy entertainment without theaters, shop without selling. by retail.

They “remind us of a long historical process of social fragmentation which is now more evident than ever,” said David Kennedy, a Stanford historian who has written extensively on the Great Depression. “It seems to me what they’re revealing is how easy it is and how much of a market there is in our society for the kinds of services that keep us apart from each other.”

There is, however, a tension between the isolation of the better-off and the visible dependence of many of their amenities on a low-wage workforce. Professor Kennedy is deeply pessimistic that real changes will emerge from this. The Great Depression created suffering more widely in the economy and lasted a decade, opening a wider political window for reform.

“It has been a long time since people of all income levels believed that acting in the collective interest was going to be more beneficial than acting in the individual interest,” said Margaret O’Mara, historian at the ‘University of Washington.

In Seattle around her, people were already starting to address these issues before the pandemic. Young tech workers were the first to embrace food delivery services and apps like Uber and Lyft. And there was already a clear dissonance, she said, between the experience of construction workers and soaring house prices and the shiny new construction linked to Seattle’s tech boom.

This was before it became awkwardly clear that the concert workers were also risking their health.

In the spring, Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote an article for The Atlantic, expressing hope that, as in the New Deal era, America could respond to economic calamity by transforming itself into a more equitable society. . It was at the start of the pandemic, when everyone was still celebrating the new heroes of the economy: grocery store clerks, delivery men, janitors and frontline nurses. That was before the pandemic became fully politicized, before the technology’s IPOs, and before Congress allowed unemployment assistance to expire.

As the pandemic dragged on and the gap widened in how Americans experienced it, Professor Cohen became less sure that the lessons of empathy and unity of the Great Depression could apply. today. We are now further away than six months ago, let alone before the pandemic.

“Just think of the paths and where they took you – you walked in and had coffee in a place where you saw people who were paid by the hour, not the month,” the professor said. Cohen. These little moments are gone. In middle-class neighborhoods and second homes where remote workers retreated, there were no homeless on the sidewalk.

“It seems like there were less and less of these interactions, but they were really important for just expanding the social world you live in,” she said. “This is perhaps the scariest dimension of it. The opportunities to interact with people who are not like you have diminished. “

Professor Hyman, however, is still optimistic, pointing out that there is something powerful about the way the inequality becomes visible when a worker drops off a customer’s order from Whole Foods.

That’s part of what made the industrial economy a better economy: 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 isn’t that consumers should feel bad about ordering takeout or having their groceries delivered. It’s not the services that are the problem, he says; it is the insecurity and low wages that accompany this work in an economy that offers few opportunities to create wealth and limited access to social benefits. The factory work wasn’t that great either. What we imagine about it are the salaries and benefits it has provided for a while.

“The history of the 1930s does not make the jobs of the 20s work better,” he said. “It’s about creating new systems for the industrial workforce.”

After the pandemic, some restaurant and retail jobs are likely not to return. And those who made them can join the growing ranks of logistics workers: people who move things around warehouses, or move passengers around cities, or move parcels and take-out around your neighborhood. It’s a very different type of workforce that needs new systems.

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