Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, there has been one common factor in multiple outbreaks. Again and again, clusters of infection have been associated with those whose work is low-paid, insecure and contingent. Even Covid-19 went for the low-paid who couldn’t work from home.
In a database of major spreading events compiled by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, nearly 80% of infections can be traced to food processing plants, ships, aged care homes, bars, restaurants, shops, and worker dormitories; all places notoriously associated with low pay and poor job security. Office workers are almost absent from the records. The same pattern has shown up in country after country.
In the U.S., employees who have asked to stay home rather than return to face infection have been fired, and in some states kicked off unemployment benefits. It seems too many would rather risk hundreds of thousands of deaths by reopening businesses and forcing staff back into work, instead of borrowing the funds needed to keep them at home, even temporarily, on a livable income.
On July 11, MarketWatch published a letter, from a reader complaining that she and her husband didn’t qualify for a stimulus payment because they make too much money. She and her husband earn about $200,000 a year, but they are upset that they do not qualify for stimulus payments from the government.
These kinds of poor-mouth complaints from people who are well-to-do by any reasonable standard are not by any means new. For example, in 2009, the Times published a piece that did not appear to be tongue-in-cheek about how tough it was to get by on an income of $500,000 in New York City. Several other straight-faced accounts of the high-earner’s plight have likewise focused on families making $500,000.
The phenomenon of wealthy people who lack liquidity and therefore essentially live hand-to-mouth is quite prevalent now. Historically, economists have assumed that rich people will spend very little out of any income increase because they can already afford whatever they want. But if the rich are constrained by a lack of cash flow, they may spend a considerable portion of any income increase, which would raise short-run growth. There are even reports that a sharp slowdown in spending by the rich is a key factor in the recent economic slowdown.