correction

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the name of Steven Rattner. This version has been updated.

Every recession falls heaviest on those with the fewest resources, the least education and the shakiest attachment to the job market. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, the uneven burden means not only unequal economic outcomes but also the difference between life and death.

Economically, unemployment afflicts 40 percent of those making less than $40,000, according to the Federal Reserve, compared with “only” 19 percent for those making between $40,000 and $100,000 and 13 percent for those making more than $100,000.

Moreover, business and economic leaders increasingly see this recession as more severe than initially thought. Steven Rattner, former “car czar” in the Obama administration, writes: “Goldman Sachs dramatically increased its projected unemployment rate for the second quarter, to a stunning 25%. Just a month ago, the firm was expecting the jobless rate to ‘only’ average 13.3% during the current quarter.” It is also going to last longer than most expected. “Even in the fourth quarter, as Americans are going to the polls, roughly 10% of workers may be jobless,” Rattner explains. “Nor does Goldman see the country returning to full employment for at least several years. Even in 2023, the unemployment rate may average 6.6%, far higher than the 3.8% rate that we enjoyed in the first quarter of this year.” A stunning retail sales decline of 16.4 percent in April (and down 24.7 percent from February) suggests the economy is in a ditch.

Women are hit worse than men, since they work disproportionately in fields hardest hit (e.g. retail, travel and hospitality). Moreover, since they and nonwhite men make up a significant share of essential workers, the risk of infection and death falls more often on them. Those who do not have the luxury to work from home but still have jobs are exposing themselves and their families daily to the pandemic.

While it is easy to imagine the coronavirus battleground in major urban centers, it has spread to the “forgotten men and women” in the Rust Belt whom President Trump won over in 2016. Now, when he goes to a state such as Pennsylvania, he is stepping into the wreckage of a pandemic he did not prepare for and a recession resulting from a necessary lockdown. (Politico found: “In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — Democrats’ so-called ‘Blue Wall’ — 19 counties report coronavirus cases doubling in less than 14 days. Trump won all but one of those counties, by an average of 65 percent.”) For Republicans, this is a political nightmare.

The health divide is even sharper than the economic one. The latest Post-Ipsos poll found that “nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes were concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect other members of their household. Those concerns were even higher for some: Roughly 7 in 10 black and Hispanic workers said they were worried about getting a household member sick if they are exposed at work.” Even more frightful, a third of those forced to leave the home for work “said they or a household member has a serious chronic illness, and 13 percent said they lack health insurance themselves.” The sick get sicker in this pandemic and in the altered economy it has created. By contrast, half of those employed can work from home — and 90 percent of those are white-collar workers.

In short, if you are poor, a woman, nonwhite or live paycheck to paycheck in a blue-collar job, you have a greater chance of being unemployed or, if still employed, of getting sick and dying. (We saw this vividly in Georgia, where 80 percent of those hospitalized with the coronavirus were African American.) That is as stark a divide as we have ever seen in this country. The longer the virus rages without a vaccine, the longer the economy will be hobbled. And with that extended economic recession, we will see the gap between rich and poor, already huge, widen still further.

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