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The Year Inequality Became Less Visible, and More Visible Than Ever

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This year, many Americans left the places where it was still possible to encounter one another. White-collar workers stopped going downtown, past homeless encampments and to lunch counters with minimum-wage staff. The well-off stopped riding public transit, where in some cities they once sat alongside commuting students and custodial workers. Diners stopped eating in restaurants, where their tips formed the wages of the people who served them.

Americans also stopped broadly sharing libraries, movie theaters, train stations and public school classrooms, the spaces that still created common experience in increasingly unequal communities. Even the D.M.V., with its cross-section of life in a single room, wasn’t that anymore.

Instead, people who could afford it retreated into smaller, more secure worlds during the pandemic. And that has made it harder to see all the inequality that worsened this year: the unemployment that soared even as the stock market did, the eviction threats that grew as home prices hit new highs.

In another way, however, the inequality already present in the economy became more visible than ever this year. With delivery services, restaurant couriers and personal shopping apps, low-wage workers were now — in far larger numbers — coming right to the doorstep of the well-off. Standing there in masks, their economic precarity was exposed.

“What these apps do is force people who live stable lives to confront the instability of working-class lives — very directly and for their own benefit,” said Louis Hyman, an economic historian at Cornell. “Before these apps, it was easy to pretend that wasn’t really happening,” he said of the yawning gaps in the economy. “There were ways to imagine those delivery people were not emblematic of anything.”

We never thought too much about the Domino’s delivery drivers, he said. They were just high school kids. Until, by the 2000s, they were not.

Historians are watching this moment with a fraught question: Will there emerge a broader demand for structural reforms to address inequality, or a further retreat by the affluent from its problems? Recessions, they say, can clarify where the economy is heading. The companies and industries that prosper during them often anticipate how society will change in the years to come.

The advertising industry grew during the Great Depression, as companies fought for scarce consumer dollars and sold escapism in alcohol, tobacco and entertainment. The ad industry anticipated the American consumer culture of the postwar era. Accounting firms and banks boomed, too, out of the New Deal-era regulation that came from the Depression.

Later, the recession of the early 1990s presaged the downsizing and outsourcing of even middle-class jobs, and the rise of consulting firms to manage that shift. And out of the wreckage of the foreclosure crisis, institutional investors foresaw a new market for single-family rental homes.

Today, the companies that are thriving — some with eye-popping I.P.O.s — have harnessed both the particular circumstances of social distancing and the longer-term trends of a society pulling apart. These companies enable you to hold a meeting without visiting the office, to buy a home without glad-handing a real estate agent, to eat restaurant meals without entering a restaurant, to enjoy entertainment without theaters, to shop without retail.

They “remind us of a long historical process of social fragmentation that is now more obvious than ever,” said David Kennedy, a Stanford historian who has written extensively about the Great Depression. “It seems to me that what they reveal is how easy it is, and how big a market there is, in our society for the kinds of services that keep us distanced from one another.”

There is a tension, though, between the isolation of the well-off and the visible dependence of many of their conveniences on low-wage labor. Professor Kennedy is deeply pessimistic that real change will emerge from it. The Great Depression created pain more broadly across the economy and lasted a decade, opening a larger political window for reform.

“It’s been a very long time since people across the income spectrum felt that acting in the collective interest was going to be more beneficial than acting in individual interests,” said Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington.

In Seattle around her, people were already starting to broach these questions before the pandemic. Young tech workers were enthusiastic early adopters of food delivery services and apps like Uber and Lyft. And there was already a clear dissonance, she said, between the experience of gig workers and the spiraling housing prices and gleaming new construction tied to Seattle’s tech boom.

That was before it became awkwardly clear that the gig workers were now risking their health, too.

Back in the spring, the Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen wrote an article for The Atlantic expressing hope that, as in the New Deal era, America could respond to economic calamity by transforming itself into a more equitable society. It was early in the pandemic, when everyone was still celebrating the economy’s new heroes: the grocery store clerks, delivery workers, janitors and frontline nurses. That was before the pandemic became fully politicized, before the tech I.P.O.s and before Congress allowed unemployment aid to expire.

As the pandemic has dragged on, and as the gap has widened in how Americans experience it, Professor Cohen has grown less sure that lessons of empathy and unity from the Great Depression can apply today. We are farther apart now than even six months ago, let alone before the pandemic.

“Just think about the pathways and where they took you — you went in and got coffee in a place where you saw people who were being paid by the hour, not by the month,” Professor Cohen said. Those small moments vanished. Within the middle-class neighborhoods and second-home retreats where remote workers withdrew, there were no homeless people on the sidewalk.

“It seems there were fewer and fewer of those interactions, but they really were important for just expanding the social world you live in,” she said. “Maybe that’s the scariest dimension of this. The opportunities to interact with people who are not like yourself have shrunk.”

Professor Hyman, however, is still optimistic, pointing out that there’s something powerful in how visible inequality becomes when a worker drops off a customer’s Whole Foods order.

That’s partially what made the industrial economy a better economy: images of children working in factories, the desperate poor of the 1930s,” he said. “Visibility is a good thing, that people are forced to confront it.”

His argument isn’t that consumers should feel bad about ordering takeout, or having their groceries delivered. It’s not the services that are the problem, he said; it’s the insecurity and low wages that come with doing that work in an economy that offers few opportunities to build wealth and limited access to benefits. Factory work wasn’t all that great, either. What we romanticize about it are the livable wages and benefits it provided for a time.

“The story of the 1930s is not making the jobs of the 1920s work better,” he said. “It’s creating new systems for the industrial work force.”

After the pandemic, it’s likely some restaurant and retail jobs won’t come back. And those who did them may join the growing ranks of logistics workers: people who move things around warehouses, or move passengers around cities, or move packages and takeout around your neighborhood. That is a very different kind of work force, in need of new systems.

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