The Myth of the Great American Equalizer


Table of Contents

Covid-19 has exposed the longstanding daily trials and tribulations of America’s poor and shrinking middle class

There have been numerous declarations that Covid-19 is the ‘great equalizer.’ While many of these comments were made before the ever developing data we have now about who is suffering at disproportionate rates, this is still a regularly used refrain.

Still, while pithy phrases might help some, I would like us to engage in the facts to illuminate the many ways in which the ‘great equalizing’ quality of COVID-19 is in fact a myth.

Before the pandemic, we find ourselves in, space and privacy have always been a luxury afforded to those who find themselves in the middle and upper classes. Why? Because space and privacy come at a premium. A premium particularly in coastal cities, with rent costing most people 40% if not more of their earnings. In the summer of 2019, research about America’s ten largest cities showed the median income was not ‘enough for the average person to avoid being housing cost-burdened.’ One can safely assume many of the 22 million Americans who made attempts to file for unemployment were unable to afford space pre-Covid-19. We must say, made attempts to file for unemployment, because not all 22 million Americans have been successful.

B.C.E. (Before coronavirus exposure), it was rare to go a week without hearing about the booming stock market. There was praise for how the US economy bounced back after the 2008 recession. However, on December 17, 2017, 10 years after the start of the recession, CNN published an article asking a poignant question, had Americans recovered from the 2008 recession? Their answer: Americans were still dealing with the scars and the middle class has not recovered since its peak in 2007.

The bar chart above illustrates the loss in wealth in middle class families between 2007–2016.

What does this have to do with today?

Imagine you were a struggling American before the recession. Then imagine you exited the recession poorer, you found yourself living in poverty or close to it for the first time. Imagine you worked upwards of 34 hours a week, but because your employer won’t hire you full-time, you go without health insurance. Imagine these 34 hours earned you a minimum wage and this made you unable to afford a 2 bedroom apartment nearly anywhere in the country for you and your children. You are forced to live check to check. Imagine living like this for 10+ years.

Imagine Corona hits and staggered, confused city-wide/state-wide shutdowns get announced one by one, listing all the ways to stay safe. Imagine learning you still have a job because it’s considered essential, just not essential enough for paid time off or to be paid a dignified wage. Imagine being told to keep 6 feet between you and others, but public transport services have been cut so the remaining routes are crowded — leaving you unable to keep even 2 feet between you and others. All while you travel to your essential job. Imagine news outlets shaming you for this. Imagine getting to work to learn, yet again, they aren’t able or won’t provide the protective wear you watched state officials on the television saying you needed to minimize exposure. Imagine being one of the 2 million Americans without the water necessary to wash your hands. Imagine wanting to stock up on groceries and diapers but you can only afford to get one at a time and when you go back out to the stores, the shelves are still wiped clean due to a shortage

Household income and family size to qualify for middle income income or upper income in 2016. Source: Pew Research Center.

Individuals with higher incomes who work ‘white-collar jobs’ in this country have been the ones able to ‘shelter in place’ with relative ease and comfort. For many Americans this is not the case with a stark line being drawn across race and class lines: only 20% of African Americans and 16% of Hispanic people report that they can work from home. This pandemic has shined a bright light on the unequal distribution of wealth with those from poor and low-income neighborhoods being hit the hardest, communities largely made up of working-class people of color.

According to Merriam-Webster, the equalizer is a noun and it means ‘a score that ties the game.’ For COVID-19 to be the great equalizer, the playing field would have needed to be level from the onset.

America will bounce back, I believe it to be true. It did after the Great Depression and the 2008 Great Recession. I do not doubt this. I just wonder, for whom?

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages