Despite all the concern about inequality within America, it’s worth noting that global inequality — the gap between the richest and poorest around the world — had declined over the past few decades. Thanks to the rise of China, India and other countries, the share of people living in abject poverty (under $2 a day) is less than a quarter of what it was in 1990.
But an astonishing set of statistics compiled by the Economist shows how years of progress are being undone in months. The World Bank estimates that about 100 million people are falling back into extreme poverty this year. Sub-Saharan Africa, which had enjoyed economic growth every year for the past 25 years, will shrink in 2020. The World Food Program — recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — estimates that the number facing hunger will double this year to 265 million people. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation warns that vaccination rates for children are as low as they were over two decades ago. Behind all these statistics are individual human beings who are starving or sick, their children wasting away, desperate and deprived of hope.
The divide between rich and poor is stark even in the United States. Two new studies estimate that between 6 million and 8 million people have been pushed into poverty over the past few months. Millions of Americans can’t pay their electric bills or are skipping meals to save cash. A recent survey found that 38 percent of those who have lost work due to covid-19 don’t have even a month’s worth of savings.
Consider how the pandemic is widening inequality in the United States. The Post analyzed Labor Department data on how the past four recessions affected the top 25 percent of income earners vs. the bottom 25 percent. In the recessions of 1990, 2001 and 2008, both groups lost jobs at about the same rate — which was a few percent. In the current recession, the top 25 percent, after a slight initial decline, has bounced back completely. The bottom 25 percent, on the other hand, has cratered, with job losses of more than 20 percent. We can see how this has happened. For those whose jobs can be done remotely — bankers, consultants, lawyers, executives, academics — life goes on with a few hiccups. For those who worked in restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, theme parks, shopping malls, work has simply disappeared.
The tragedy is that we know what we need to do. In March, Congress and the administration acted swiftly and boldly to pass a massive relief and stimulus package, which was so successful it seems to have made many in Washington complacent. It has now largely expired, and the two parties are back to their partisan warfare. The Democrats are right to want a much larger relief package than the administration is offering. Cities and states should not be punished for the collapse in tax revenue that have resulted from the pandemic. But surely the best path for the country is for Democrats to accept the concessions they have extracted from Republicans and then push for more after Election Day.
This week, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pressed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on why she would not take the administration’s offer of $1.8 trillion. Her response was defensive and combative. She unfairly accused Blitzer of being an apologist for the Republican Party. She said something about how Republicans “do not share our values.” (Of course they don’t, that’s why there are two parties and you have to make compromises.) None of it added up to a coherent position in a time of national emergency. The Republicans in the Senate might well block what the Trump administration has offered. They have signaled great displeasure with the size of the package. But then why not pass the bill and put the pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his Republican colleagues?
I cannot help but wonder whether the relative normalcy of life for elites has prevented us from understanding the true severity of the problem. For those of us using Zoom, things have been a bit disruptive and strange. But for tens of millions of people in the United States — and hundreds of millions around the world — this is the Great Depression. Can we please help them?
This column draws on some material in the author’s new book, “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.”