The shocking disconnect between a thriving U.S. investor economy and its millions of unemployed as a recipe for even worse social unrest.
Don’t blame Lisa Scott, a 43-year-old certified nursing assistant who lives in the Oxford Circle section of Philadelphia, for not celebrating this week as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index soared to yet another record high, as Wall Street’s unbelievable — in every sense of the word — summer stretches into a new month.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the Dow was rising yet another 454 points, Scott — who hasn’t worked since the coronavirus turned her world upside down in March — was far too busy worrying why Pennsylvania still hasn’t processed her unemployment claim, whether her landlord will keep allowing her to pay whatever rent she can and how she’d be able to seek new work with her 12-year-old at home for virtual schooling.
“I think it’s all bull----, pardon my language,” Scott told me when I asked her about the stock market soaring even as nearly 30 million Americans, that’s one in every five workers, continues to receive the unemployment benefits she’s still struggling to obtain. Like many in her shoes, the mother of six is losing faith in the system.
“I am an essential worker — I am needed, and look how they’re doing me,” Scott told me.
What’s so mind-boggling is that the increasingly desperate plight of America’s jobless, a crisis that’s approached the unthinkable levels of the Great Depression of the 1930s, isn’t the biggest story on the news. Instead, it’s squeezed out by a debate over so-called “law and order,” with a president who’d rather marshal the vast power of the federal government to send troops to arrest graffiti artists than enact a massive jobs-and-relief program.
Seriously? You’re worried about social unrest now? Just imagine the chaos in a few months, when homeless people sleep on park benches under a blanket of newspaper headlines that Jeff Bezos is the world’s first $300 billion man, or when the food lines begin to resemble “Hands Across America.” Personally, I don’t play the stock market but if I did, I’d be investing heavily in pitchfork manufacturers.
This isn’t a new problem, of course. Ever since 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s initial “Make America Great Again” platform” was cover (just as it would be for Donald Trump) for slashing taxes on the wealthy, the background noise of income inequality has gone from a whisper to the scream of “We are the 99%!”
But the cataclysm of 2020’s pandemic and related shutdowns has taken America’s wealth gap from tragedy to farce. After a steep dip in the spring — shuttered stores and factories and millions of jobless claims will do that, at least briefly — Wall Street bounced back and kept going. Why? Some of the daily spikes have shown that America’s supposedly sharp-eyed stock traders — like the president they admire — are far too susceptible to dubious rumors and scammy press releases about imminent vaccines.
But that’s only part of the dark underbelly of Wall Street’s daily highs. The pandemic has played out in a cruel way that’s caused beloved small businesses like one-of-a-kind boutiques and funky restaurants to close, while big corporations like Amazon with their global logistics have flourished. America has become even more cruel and less fun to live in at the same time.
But public corporations are also booming because we’ve created a system that can pump in literally trillions of dollars to prop up stocks — led by a Federal Reserve whose chairman was appointed by a president who uses the sky-high Dow to argue for his reelection — but gridlocks over the idea of helping families pay their $500 monthly rent.
And so the billionaires who run these public corporations have seen their private wealth explode. Amazon’s Bezos became Planet Earth’s first $200 billion man (even after his divorce!) but other billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have also become obscenely rich during the worst year of many people’s lifetimes.
Meanwhile, it was hailed as a warped victory on Thursday morning when “only” 881,000 Americans filed new state unemployment claims. But that still dwarfs any week from the painful Great Recession only a decade ago, and it also fails to include a second class of emergency pandemic benefits that elevates the total number seeking new aid this week to 1.6 million. And yet somehow this massive societal shakeup continues to get lost amid a president’s increasingly delusional tweets or public comments, or dramatic video of small courthouse fires.
John Dodds, the activist who heads the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, in a city where the jobless rate is still at the near-Depression level of 17.7%, the priority remains trying to convince Washington to reinstate the $600 weekly unemployment-compensation boost that arguably prevented a total meltdown but expired at the end of July. Congress, which stayed in recess for most of August, didn’t have the same sense of urgency.
The stories of America’s unemployed are as diverse as the nation itself. Rebecca Ansel, an unemployed violinist and musicians’ union member, recently rallied with other PUP members in Philadelphia to extend the $600 benefit. Unlike Lisa Scott, she’d gotten her jobless claim processed quickly, and owning her own home in Collingswood, New Jersey, has helped her get by. But she worried things will change with Philadelphia’s arts’ venues likely to remain dark for months, and not being able to do what she loves has already exacted an emotional toll. “Everything is taking a hit — it’s hard,” Ansel told me. She said “I feel a piece of myself is missing.”
For Scott, as for many, economic worries are front and center. She lost her nursing assistant job in March when — concerned about her six kids, including a 4-year-old — she declined to volunteer for a COVID unit. The setback, and her inability to get Pennsylvania to process her unemployment claim, is causing her to lose hope in the system. “I don’t think they’re handling it too good,” she said. “Look at me, a hard-working woman and for the first time in 15 years I’m on food stamps.”
The fierce urgency of now that briefly allowed Congress and the Trump administration to pass relief bills in the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis needs to be rekindled, or the breakdown of American social order will only accelerate. It’s bizarre that we’re playing politics around the recent spike in murder rates in American cities and ignoring the obvious link to the COVID-19 economic despair and disruption. That’s one more reason why the stock market rise matters; it’s a convenient distraction that allows policymakers to pretend that the economy is doing just fine when it’s utterly broken for tens of millions of forgotten Americans.
But we can’t ignore this forever. Last week, about 100 protesters showed up outside Bezos’ $23 million mansion in D.C. (where he owns The Washington Post) and, demanding higher wages and better coronavirus protection for Amazon workers, erected a guillotine. I’m reporting that and not endorsing it — lasting social change will only come through nonviolent resistance — but I do think that symbolism should send a cold metal chill down the spine of anyone still buying the fantasies of late-stage capitalism.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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