Others are facing threats not just to their livelihoods but their lives. Schoolteachers, college professors, restaurant workers, retail workers, meatpackers and others are being pushed to return to work even though it’s far from clear that doing so is safe. Millions more are suffering extreme versions of the Sisyphean task of achieving work-life balance — the high cost and lack of access to quality child care, for instance, has become a consuming worry of just about every parent in the nation.
It is well within the grasp of the mighty federal government to alleviate many of these problems, and economists generally agree that urgent federal aid would stimulate wider economic activity, benefiting even those of us who do feel economically secure. Passing extra benefits should not be a hard call; in the most terrible economic climate since the Great Depression, it is just about the least the government could do.
And yet our political system is in a state of paralysis. Even worse, the government’s failure to mitigate this suffering is somehow not the main story of the day — nor even, it seems, a pressing issue in the presidential election. The speaker of the House’s haircut has gotten more coverage, recently, than the millions of people looking for work.
Why has the plight of American workers received so little attention? There are some obvious reasons. For decades, corporations waged a sustained assault on labor unions. The assault has worked. Unions were once a key voice of political advocacy for low-income Americans; their decline in membership has left them with far less political power, allowing politicians to more easily ignore working-class voters.
Yet another factor is the corrosive stratification caused by rising inequality. American workers across the class spectrum face many similar problems — expensive or inaccessible health care, child care, loosening workplace safety standards, and lax protections against being fired, among other things.
But intense ideological and class polarization limits our ability to organize across these divides. For many wealthy Americans, the recession is all but over. Even with recent dips, the stock market has recovered much of its losses. Car sales are down — but the cars that are selling are more expensive than ever before. Billionaires are doing better than ever.
These stark class divisions mean that wealthy Americans are often insulated from the plight of the poor. What does it mean to be out of work or poor in pandemic America? Nearly “one in eight households doesn’t have enough to eat,” The Times Magazine reported Sunday, alongside a searing collection of images by Brenda Ann Kenneally, a journalist who has been traversing the world’s wealthiest country to document the lives of its hungry multitudes. Our culture is now so fragmented that it’s possible to live a full life in America blissfully ignorant of our neighbors going hungry.