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COVID-19 Reminded Us Of Just How Unequal America Is

Over the past year, more than half a million Americans have died from COVID-19. And although some government officials initially said the pandemic would be a “great equalizer,” it has been anything but that. Instead, the pandemic has shown us — again — what the United States really is: a nation of tremendous inequality.

Not only have there been substantial racial and economic disparities in death rates, but there have also been unequal effects among the living. For instance, while millions fell into poverty and struggled to put food on the table, others have weathered the pandemic relatively unscathed. According to some studies, America’s billionaires have made around $1 trillion dollars since the pandemic started.  

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But these patterns are hardly new; we’ve had two separate and unequal Americas for a long time. It’s something Dr. Martin Luther King addressed more than five decades ago in this speech, “The Other America.” One America, King said, was “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity,” while in the other, people were “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

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The pandemic has served to highlight the two Americas King spoke of, but the pandemic has also exacerbated the gap, largely through something sociologists call “opportunity hoardingor the accumulation of resources at the exclusion of others.

This hoarding of opportunity matters a great deal, too, because it’s driving much of the inequality we see. Family wealth is one of the biggest predictors of who goes to college (and also who graduates). And in the pandemic, family wealth has been a big indicator of which children have fallen behind in school. Our health care system is also riddled with unequal access. In the pandemic, this has meant poorer Americans and Black and brown Americans have been more likely to die. Where we live, play and work is a question of opportunity, too. It affects, to use the language of King, “every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to address this growing inequality both in its COVID-19 relief package and in executive orders that have explicitly focused on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities. But these policies are not without controversy. One of the biggest critiques of them is that they cost too much money.

But what if our understanding of how much money we need — as individuals and as a society — to reduce staggering levels of inequality is wrong? And what if there are other important social costs like eroding trust in our institutions that we haven’t considered as a consequence of our unequal society?

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Let’s start with how much money actually makes someone happy; it’s not as much as you might think. In a 2018 study of over 1.7 million people from 164 countries, researchers from Purdue University and the University of Virginia found that people tended to be satisfied with their life once their household income was the equivalent of approximately $95,000; beyond that, there was no appreciable increase in what the researchers called a person’s “subjective well-being.”1 In fact, the researchers found that, in some parts of the world, people’s happiness actually declined if they made more money.

Why isn’t more money always better? This is a question that economists and psychologists have been studying since at least the 1970s. Economists initially observed that, somewhat paradoxically, economic growth did not reliably increase a country’s happiness. Decades later, psychologists offered an explanation as to why: Economic growth improves national happiness when the gains are distributed more equally. In other words, it’s only when economic gains are concentrated among a select few, as is the situation now in the U.S., that growth does not increase national happiness.

That’s an important point to understand because it suggests a country’s ultimate success lies beyond its gross domestic product. That is, a country’s citizens having equal opportunities to share in its progress is just as important as the country’s bottom line. It’s not just opportunities to make more money that matter, either. There’s a whole body of research that suggests societal inequality is one of the strongest indicators of whether people trust each other. Trust is foundational for people to participate in the civic and social life that makes societies function, so if that trust doesn’t exist — and there are reasons to believe social trust has declined in recent years — that poses a big problem for the U.S.

We are at an important crossroads in American society. The pandemic and all of its disparate impacts — on our health, our education system, our politics — have revealed just how fractured our society is. They have revealed that we may not be as exceptional as we once thought we were. We have not invested enough in the infrastructure and broader social institutions that are required to be exceptional in times like these. And we will not be able to do so — or to do many of the things we need to do to build a better society — as long as we continue the trend of enabling the few to hoard resources at the expense of the many. If we want to come out of the pandemic as a stronger and more united country, we will need to find pathways that put our citizens on more equal footing.

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  1. To be sure, the point at which people were happy was dependent on a number of things, like where they live. For instance, those living in Northern America were satisfied with $105,000, whereas those living in Latin America or the Caribbean reached their “satiation point” closer to $35,000. Levels of education also mattered: Those with higher levels of education needed $115,000 to be satisfied, while those with lower levels of education were satisfied with $70,000.

Neil Lewis Jr. is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.