Lower-income Americans easily can fall through the cracks — even without a pandemic.
From Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of my home state of Florida, to President Trump, to the Instagram messages of Harry and Meghan, the duke and duchess of Sussex, to “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot, to some of my upper-middle class friends on Facebook, it’s become the catchphrase and sentiment of our moment, a reminder that the coronavirus is a great equalizer, a symbol of our shared humanity: We’re all in this together.
Only we’re not.
The coronavirus has been anything but a great equalizer. It’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide, exposing how deeply unequal this country is and how deep the fissures are. Rather than trying to cover it all up with pithy sayings — rather than trying to sweep these divides under the rug with platitudes like “we’re all in this together” — we should use this moment as an opportunity to take a hard look at the broken systems that perpetuate inequality: education, health coverage, distribution of opportunity and wealth, to name a few.
I’m a low-income mother of two children ages 2 and 4. My husband manages a small cellphone store; before I went back to university in the fall to pick up a second master’s degree, I was an adjunct professor. We are on food stamps and Medicaid. These days, as many of my friends and acquaintances continue working in white-collar jobs while sheltering at home, my husband must continue opening his store every day. If he doesn’t, he won’t get paid. If he doesn’t get paid, we won’t make rent. And I doubt the French investors who own our townhouse in South Florida will care enough about our particular circumstances to let us stay here free.
In our income bracket, this experience is common. While many upper-middle class and wealthy families stay home together and stay healthy, people like my husband must go out and risk their lives — and the lives of the loved ones they come home to — by working low-paying service jobs that require a high degree of contact with the public.
Already, statistics show low-income communities are bearing the brunt of this epidemic: In New York, the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, the least well-off neighborhoods are hit the hardest; South Florida is the center of the state’s covid crisis. Writing in CityLab, urbanist Richard Florida teamed up with economist Todd Gabe to examine the class divide and identify “the cities and metro areas whose workforces are most exposed and at risk from Covid-19.” They zoomed in on two factors or “two key at-risk characteristics of jobs: the degree to which workers interact directly with the public and jobs that require high levels of very close physical proximity to others.”
Guess what they found? We’re not all in this together.
“Three-quarters of the jobs that involve working directly with the public are low-paying service jobs; 70% of the people who work in close physical proximity to one another are low-wage service workers or blue-collar workers. From there, our analysis zeroed in on metropolitan areas to determine which workforces have the highest percentages of these high-risk occupations.”
If you look at what they’ve charted, you’ll see the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach stretch right at the top with 28 percent of its workers in these at-risk jobs. New York City is among the cities “whose workforces are most vulnerable.”
Simply put, lower-income people are at greater risk. Lower-income workers have to keep going out to work. Let us not forget that this is a “white-collar quarantine” as one small business owner put it, pointing out that for many with blue-collar jobs, it’s business as usual — that is, if they haven’t been laid off. And let’s remember that #WhenThisIsOver, those of us who did not go into this pandemic with good jobs behind us and a bit of money below us will likely be left reeling for years to come.
For those of us hanging on to the lower socioeconomic rungs, none of this is new. We see and feel these class differences keenly. The pandemic poses an opportunity for the rest of the country, and our leaders, to acknowledge these fissures and to figure out how we got here and how we can remedy them. As a nation, we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable in our society. The coronavirus shows how easily huge segments of our country — those who are the backbone of our country — can, and do, fall through the cracks.