Income inequality in the United States was at historic levels before the coronavirus hit. Now, as the disease—and the social and economic implications it brings—spread across the country, it is likely to create even deeper fissures between the poor and rich.
Low-income workers are more likely to have experienced income reductions and job losses, in part because they are less likely to be able to work from home; and they’re more likely to have been designated as “essential” workers who, by the nature of their work, are at higher risk of being exposed to the virus. Low-income workers are also less likely to have access to good health care, and less likely to be tested and treated for COVID-19. This widening gap between the rich and poor is likely to occur on a global scale, both within countries as well as between poorer and richer countries.
Within this bleak picture, there is both encouraging and discouraging news. As social scientists studying the antecedents and consequences of societal inequalities, we are heartened to see swift policy actions taken in countries around the globe to direct cash payments to low-income individuals, for example through stimulus checks in the United States, government-assisted furlough payments in the United Kingdom, or universal basic income in Spain. We are also encouraged that participants in a recent U.S. survey recognize that the virus has increased income inequality and agree that governments should commit to reducing it.
We must acknowledge that the conditions of a precoronavirus world were strongly responsible for making this virus (and the ensuing fallout) particularly disastrous.
At the same time, we are worried that the prevailing attitude falls prey to the status quo bias, with politicians, policymakers, and lay people wishing to restore “the way things were” before the crisis. Indeed, because societies around the world are currently operating under conditions of uncertainty and economic scarcity, most of us are more likely to focus on immediate and short-term solutions and worry about what we could lose now or in the future, rather than imagine what we could gain.
But this moment is also an opportunity to take a closer look at society. We must acknowledge that the conditions of a precoronavirus world were strongly responsible for making this virus (and the ensuing fallout) particularly disastrous. Paraphrasing the late sociologist Charles Perrow, there are no such things as “natural disasters.” Indeed, there is nothing natural about disasters because their impact is the result of the way society is structured. Viewed from this lens, the goal of policymakers during the pandemic should not be to reactively restore the status quo. Instead, the goal should be to proactively restructure society, so we are all more resilient the next time disaster strikes.
The goal of policymakers during the pandemic should not be to reactively restore the status quo. Instead, the goal should be to proactively restructure society, so we are all more resilient the next time disaster strikes.
Achieving this goal of resilience requires a clear understanding of what aspects of society need strengthening. While it is critical for policymakers to consider disparities of income, they also need to expand their focus. The crisis highlights the deeply entrenched connections between the multiple dimensions of inequalities in society. Who can afford to risk an infection? Who gets to wear masks in public without a second thought about racial profiling? Who takes on childcare responsibilities when parents can work from home? (This is a trend that can be seen in our own field, with journal submissions—the currency of academic success—revealing greater gender rifts since the onset of the pandemic.) These inequalities have always been present in our society, but the pandemic is unique in that it highlights them all simultaneously.
Because inequality is multifaceted, policy debates must be as well. Whereas politicians have been focusing on how to distribute an “economic stimulus” plan, this debate is insufficient because it focuses only on restoring prior income. Instead, a more resilient future requires an integration of the different dimensions of inequality that are intimately connected but often “invisible.”
Race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status, among other dimensions, have always been “fault lines” along which inequality splits, but this crisis is helping us see those lines more clearly, and all at once. Now that these fault lines have been exposed, politicians on either side of the aisle can no longer pretend they are not there, or deal with only one at a time. Seaming one fault line while keeping the others unchecked will leave society exposed to the same threats it is currently experiencing. To strengthen society as a whole we must consider the system as a whole.
Race, gender, age, and socioeconomic status, among other dimensions, have always been “fault lines” along which inequality splits, but this crisis is helping us see those lines more clearly, and all at once.
Policies should be evaluated by their potential to simultaneously address multiple dimensions of inequality and create a level playing field for future economic mobility. Income is obviously a dimension that should not be missed: policymakers should ensure that the gains that a rebooted economy will inevitably deliver are redistributed more equally.
But we should also push to go beyond just income. We could, for example, use the lockdown to change the norms around childcare, such as incentivizing women and men equally to stay home even after lockdowns have ended, or by providing free childcare support and early childhood education. We could ensure more equitable access to healthcare and childcare, regardless of employment status, income, or race, and expand sick leave protections. We could ensure more equitable access to broadband connections which have become so crucial in a time where online services are rapidly transforming our educational, financial, and health systems. These are not partisan appeals, but proposals grounded on solid scientific evidence, accumulated over decades of social science research.
Finally, as social scientists, we understand the crucial role played by the social fabric in which people are embedded, a role that becomes especially critical in times of hardship and difficulty. New policy proposals could consider the role of local communities, which play a key role in creating the psychological and economic well-being that ameliorates the effect of inequalities.
To boost stronger community ties, policymakers could, for example, provide incentives to households in the form of vouchers or rebates to redeem stimulus assistance at local businesses, which would also help boost the economy locally. Similarly, policymakers might provide local grants to empower local community organizers, who are perhaps most aware of fault lines in their community and are able to find the most suitable solutions. While such interventions may not reduce inequality alone, they may reduce the negative effects of inequality by strengthening community ties.
Let us use this fresh start to set new policy and social norms that have the power to reduce inequality in the future. We’ll have failed if we return to the way things were.
We are in a pivotal moment in modern history—one which has documented parallels with the Great Depression. Now, as then, we are living through a moment of crisis that also affords us an opportunity to reshape the inequalities we have come to take for granted. Whereas the policies dealing with the Great Depression helped reduce income inequality in the United States and Europe, today’s policies in response to the coronavirus need to go a step further, recognizing the existence—and the interconnectedness—of various types of inequalities.
History suggests that the impact of pandemics on the socioeconomic order depends on policy choices and the will of policymakers. Rebuilding will require a policy agenda focused on the long-term that fairly distributes resources across individuals, groups, and generations. This is as much a pragmatic issue as it is a moral one. Let us use this fresh start to set new policy and social norms that have the power to reduce inequality in the future. We’ll have failed if we return to the way things were.