by Nathan Warf
Stevens Elementary School in Seattle (Photography by Buidhe, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0)
American journalist George Packer recently had an article in The Atlantic provocatively titled “We are Living in a Failed State.” The subtitle elaborated: “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” By the time I came across the article, I had already started working on this blog post. I wish to examine some of the political and economic realities exposed by COVID-19, how some of our systems are failing. My own writing will tread some similar ground to Packer’s article, I hope to add to the conversation. I’m convinced that these are things all Americans should consider, particularly those who wear the name of Christ. The coronavirus is shining a light on ongoing issues in America, including increasing wealth inequality, healthcare access, and racial justice.
Perhaps you saw the recent headline that the Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced its best week since 1938. During the week in question (ending April 11), both the DJIA and S&P 500 saw remarkable gains topping 10 percent. In the same week, 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, bringing the three-week total to over 16 million. Once we add the last two weeks, the number tops 26.5 million Americans, putting the unemployment rate over 20 percent, which is the worst level since 1934.
These figures invite an obvious question. How is the stock market posting such strong gains when so many Americans are losing their jobs? The answers are complex. The stock market has been especially volatile during the pandemic. After fears led to a severe dip, fiscal and monetary maneuvers by both Congress and the Federal Reserve restored some confidence. The stock market has rebounded, even if temporarily.
The important takeaway here is that while the stock market is influenced by the economy, it is not the economy. As a number of people have noted over the years, there is a tremendous distance between Wall Street and Main Street. The top 1 percent of wealthiest Americans own 50 percent of all stocks. The top 0.1 percent hold 17 percent by themselves. Compare that to the bottom 50 percent of Americans, who hold roughly 0.25 percent of all stocks. The disparities become even more glaring when race is considered. Just over 60 percent of white families own stock, with median holdings of around $50k. Among black and Hispanic families, ownership drops to around 30 percent, with median holdings just over $10k.
As authors for the Pew Research Center claim, wealth inequality in America “is sharp and rising.” Income inequality statistics are interesting, but wealth inequality statistics are more informative as a measure of financial security. (Income measures wages and compensation. Wealth includes other assets like land, homes, and stock holdings.) The numbers are alarming. The top 1 percent of Americans hold 32 percent of the nation’s wealth. The richest 10 percent hold 70 percent. Households in the 50-90th percentiles have 29 percent of the share, which means the bottom half of American households barely register with only 1 percent of total household wealth. Severe inequality has a tendency to produce political instability and affects those in the bottom tiers in many ways, from limiting economic opportunity and mobility to dramatically reducing life expectancy.
Individual choices and work ethic certainly account for some wealth inequality. That can and should be acknowledged, but we should also recognize that many other factors play a role, too. Where people are born and to whom affects their ability to gain wealth. Educational and tax systems play a role as well, as do race and gender. These issues need to be addressed, but any kind of systematic review of wealth inequality tends to make people nervous. So let me start with this assurance: acknowledging imperfections in our form of capitalism does not make us socialists. Economic systems are not a simple binary choice. Moreover, we can champion personal responsibility while also recognizing the responsibilities we have toward one another, some of which involve government action.
Wealth inequality would not be such a concern if so many toward the bottom were not struggling so much. The current pandemic has revealed what many have known all along: Almost 80 percent of American workers live paycheck to paycheck. Nearly 30 percent have no emergency fund. Even more startling, in a study conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, 47 percent of respondents said that they would struggle to pay for a $400 emergency. Again, personal choices play a role, but so do relatively stagnant wages and the rising cost of living. The price of college and healthcare far outpace inflation.
To get some idea about the financial insecurity many Americans face, you need look no further than modern day “bread lines” popping up as a result of coronavirus layoffs. In communities across our country, people wait in a mile-long line of vehicles just to get some food. Many families already faced chronic food insecurity and depended on assistance. Now, with increased need, some food banks are being stretched to the limit. The coronavirus has made clear that many Americans are living on the edge.
It’s not just financial insecurity; it’s healthcare insecurity as well. The coronavirus has revealed that our reliance on employer-based health insurance is problematic. As the Institute of Medicine explains, this system came about as a fascinating and unintended consequence of policies enacted by the War Labor Board during World War II. With labor shortages across the country, the Board enacted wage controls and later determined that an employer’s “contributions to insurance and pension funds did not count as wages.” Thus, in an effort to get around wage controls, employers increased benefits like health insurance, thus forming a link that continues to this day. The Institute concludes, “By the end of the war, health coverage had tripled.” Individuals with employer-sponsored healthcare might be blissfully unaware of how broken our system is, that is, until they lose their jobs in midst of a pandemic. In our own security, we must not be insensitive to the problems others face.
While many have lost their jobs, and perhaps their health coverage, because of the coronavirus, many continue to be employed. Some have the good fortune to be able to work from home. Others are not so lucky. Many of these “essential employees” are lower-income workers in the service industry, where physical presence is a necessary part of the job. Over the course of the pandemic, we have learned more about our nation’s dependence on these individuals who, among other things, produce, transport, and distribute our food and medical supplies.
Some groups are overrepresented in this essential workforce. For one, women hold a majority of the jobs in social work, health care, and critical retail (grocery stores, fast food, etc.). Their service on the front lines means greater exposure to the coronavirus. Nearly three in four health workers to test positive are women.
The CDC also reports “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” Many of the reasons for the disparity are unpleasant to confront, as they reveal the consequence of longstanding racial injustice in our country. Minorities are more likely to live in densely populated areas where social distancing is more difficult. In part, this is due to the lasting influence of residential segregation, which was not fully prohibited until the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Moreover, minorities are more likely to live near industry, highways, and landfills, places where air quality leads to respiratory issues and other health problems. Indeed, minorities suffer higher rates of many chronic health conditions that make COVID-19 far more deadly. Further, like women, minorities are overrepresented in essential industries and must continue working outside the home during this period. Many lack paid leave or adequate health insurance. Finally, minorities are dramatically overrepresented in both state and federal prisons, where overcrowding and close quarters enable the quick spread of the virus. Despite progress over the last twenty years, the U.S. continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the world. This reflects the behaviors we choose to criminalize, disparities in prosecution and sentencing, and the perverse incentives of privatization in the prison system (which includes not only private prisons but public prisons that outsource services to private companies). While we have made progress toward achieving racial justice, the coronavirus shows the distance we have yet to go.
The pandemic has revealed many things about our nation. Many are positive. Americans have sacrificed a great deal to effectuate social distancing guidelines. Millions are putting themselves in harm’s way to care for others. Individuals are making masks, donating supplies, and looking for ways to take care of their neighbors. Such positive news ought to be celebrated.
As I’ve attempted to show, however, the pandemic has also revealed some negative things about our nation. Those things also deserve our attention. The words of Martin Luther King Jr., are as applicable today as when he penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” nearly sixty years ago. Now, as then, many Christians reject important socioeconomic issues as being divisive and no business of the church. Such a position leads the church to be “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” As Christians, we should seek justice. To the extent that the coronavirus has revealed injustice, has shown people to be hurting, we ought to take notice and act. Yet, as King says, too often the church is “an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.” Pointing out the problems with our systems may make us seem divisive, but is it not worse to be complacent? At some point, our ignorance becomes willful and our silence complicit. May we no longer “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Now, just as in King’s day, there are “young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” I work with students every day who are confused by the “appalling silence” of some Christians in the face of today’s injustices in the U.S. They long, as King did, for “today's church … [to] recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church.” Let us develop hearts that break over sin, over injustice, over the hurting of those made in the image of God. Let us love one another, for love is of God. Let that love guide our response to the pandemic both now and beyond.
 George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” theatlantic.com, Special Online Preview of June 2020 edition (accessed 25 April 2020).
 See Andrea Riquier, “16 million people just got laid off but U.S. stocks had their best week in 45 years,” MarketWatch.com, 11 April 2020, (accessed 11 April 2020); see also Lance Lambert, “Real unemployment rate soars past 20%—and the U.S. has now lost 26.5 million jobs,” Fortune.com, 23 April 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020).
 See Julia La Roche, “Why the Dow’s best week in 82 years is no reason to get bullish,” Finance.yahoo.com, 29 March 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020).
 See Heidi Chung, “The richest 1% own 50% of stocks held by American households,” Finance.yahoo.com, 17 January 2019, (accessed 11 April 2020).
 See Kim Parker and Richard Fry, “More than half of U.S. households have some investment in the stock market,” PewResearch.org, 25 March 2020, (accessed 11 April 2020).
 See Juliana Menasce Horowitz et al., “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” pewsocialtrends.org, 9 January 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020); see also Pedro Nicolaci da Costa, “America's Humongous Wealth Gap Is Widening Further,” Forbes.com, 29 May 2019, (accessed 25 April 2020); Jeff Spross, “Wealth inequality is even worse than income inequality,” theweek.com, 10 August 2017 (accessed 28 April 2020).
 See generally, Aristotle, The Politics, translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984; Raj Chetty, et al., “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001–2014,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 13 May 2016 (accessed 25 April 2020).
 Nicole Lyn Pesce, “A shocking number of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” Marketwatch.com, 22 January 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020); see also Zack Friedman, “78% Of Workers Live Paycheck To Paycheck,” forbes.com, 11 January 2019 (accessed 25 April 2020); Rebecca Lake, “Why Upper-Middle Earners Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck,” Investopedia.com, 24 March 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020); Neal Gabler, “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” theatlantic.com, May 2016 (accessed 28 April 2020); Erik Sherman, “Inflation is at historic lows, so why do things seem so expensive?” Fortune.com, 13 February 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020).
 See, e.g., Maanvi Singh, “California's food banks grapple with 'tsunami of need' as pandemic grows,” TheGuardian.com, 3 April 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020); Nicholas Kulish, “‘Never Seen Anything Like It’: Cars Line Up for Miles at Food Banks,” nytimes.com, 8 April 2020, (accessed 11 April 2020).
 Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Employment-Based Health Benefits; Field MJ, Shapiro HT, editors. Employment and Health Benefits: A Connection at Risk. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993. 2, Origins and Evolution of Employment-Based Health Benefits. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235989/ (accessed 25 April 2020).
 Hadley Heath Manning, “Pandemic shows danger of job-based health insurance,” washingtonexaminer.com, 11 April 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020).
 Jack Elson, “Third of all jobs done by US women are designated essential as they make up majority of key workers during coronavirus crisis, research shows,” dailymail.co.uk, 20 April 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020).
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” cdc.gov, n.d. (accessed 25 April 2020); Trevor Hughes, “Poor, essential and on the bus: Coronavirus is putting public transportation riders at risk,” usatoday.com, 14 April 2020 (accessed 25 April 2020); Christin Ro, “Coronavirus: Why some racial groups are more vulnerable,” bbc.com, 20 April 2020, (accessed 25 April 2020); National Association of Realtors, “You Can’t Live Here: The Enduring Impacts of Restrictive Covenants,” nar.realtor, February 2018 (accessed 25 April 2020); John Gramlich, “The gap between the number of blacks and whites in prison is shrinking,” pewresearch.org, 30 April 2019 (accessed 25 April 2020); Katie Mettler, “States imprison black people at five times the rate of whites—a sign of a narrowing yet still-wide gap,” washingtonpost.com, 4 December 2019 (accessed 25 April 2020); Holly Yan, “Prisons and jails across the US are turning into 'petri dishes' for coronavirus,” cnn.com, 10 April 2020 (accessed 25 April 2020); Mia Armstrong, “Here's Why Abolishing Private Prisons Isn't a Silver Bullet,” themarshallproject.org, 12 September 2019 (accessed 26 April 2020).
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” August 1963, available at http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/letter_birmingham_jail.pdf (accessed 25 April 2020).
 I John 4:7 (ESV).