The economic prospects of rich and poor Americans had long been diverging. The pandemic finally completed the break.

The economic prospects of rich and poor Americans had long been diverging. The pandemic finally completed the break.
Carlos Ponce joins a protest in in Miami Springs, Florida, asking senators to continue unemployment benefits past July 31, 2020.Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like the American economy was booming.
  • But ever-growing inequality was lurking underneath, and the pandemic threw that into starker relief.
  • The average American's income rose after the $3 trillion CARES Act, but after those benefits expired in July, the seemingly never-ending pandemic plunged millions into poverty.
  • As a K-shaped recovery took form, benefitting those already comfortable and further impoverishing those worse off, Americans at the bottom fell further behind.
  • It could take a decade until lower-income Americans recover from the pandemic recession alone, notwithstanding the preexisting inequality gap.

Lori Jay spent the past four years working as a rideshare driver in Maui. The 66-year-old was part of the gig economy, relying on a steady stream of tourists for her income.

"We used to joke kiddingly to each other, everybody here, 'What happens when the ships stop coming?'" Jay told Insider.

Back then, tourists were spending money on vacations, the job market was competitive, and unemployment was at record lows.

But the economy looked better on the surface than the reality underneath. As Insider's Andy Kiersz reported, there was in fact a "two-track" economy: those who owned stocks, or were already firmly middle or high-income, were reaping the benefits of a booming economy. An increasing share of national income was going to the top 1%.

But wages remained stagnant for everyone else. It was more expensive to join the middle class, and debt and inequality were only increasing.


Then came March, and those ships stopped coming.

"Everybody I know stopped working," Jay said.

The uneven dynamics of the economy were then exacerbated, resulting in widening inequality at a time when the poor aren't only financially vulnerable but when physically performing a job brings an associated risk of infection from a deadly pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, high earners in the upper middle class and above - those at the top of America's K-shaped recovery - haven't just been financially comfortable, they've thrived.

And the people at the bottom of the K? They were already feeling the impact of growing income inequality at the start of 2020, and have just fallen further and further behind.


Federal assistance worked in the spring, but its absence widened the gap after the summer

The immediate fallout of the pandemic was swift: from March 15 to April 18, over 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. The CARES Act in March offered some relief, with its $1,200 stimulus checks and an additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits (that is, for people who were able to get through to their state's unemployment offices).

Some weren't receiving any unemployment, or just a small amount. That was the case for 38-year-old Amanda Clark, who lost her restaurant job in March. She wasn't able to get unemployment until May, when she started to receive $117 a week. But those months without any income took their toll: she lost her apartment.

Still, that federal aid likely saved 12 million Americans from falling into poverty. In April, personal income for Americans spiked and the median checking account balance rose by 65%. Also, poverty rates fell in March and April.

But millions of Americans were suddenly - and indefinitely - unemployed, especially lower-wage workers.

"Around April, people started realizing that they got to start to try to do something," Jay said. She said that people started trying to organize growing gardens and food.


Meanwhile, the millions of workers told to make their homes their workspaces were adjusting; some even preferred it to the offices of the before times.

Read more: Nearly 8 million Americans fell below the poverty line since the summer as the government stopped writing checks for stimulus, unemployment, and small business aid

Higher-wage workers were six times more likely to be able to work from home than lower-wage workers, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. The lower-wage workers who had to continue reporting to work risked continual exposure to the virus - and were more likely to live with family members over the age of 60.

Read more: As Americans overall grow more worried about inequality, those making $100,000 and up are surging in consumer confidence

The two-track economy resurfaced after July, but worse

The problems with the two-track economy resurfaced after the CARES Act ran out at the end of July, compounded by the conditions of the pandemic. Inequality continued to grow. Millions of Americans were left without a lifeline; from June to November, about 7.8 million Americans fell below the poverty line.


Jay said that some people she knew were called back to work, causing them to lose their unemployment benefits. But many were called in for just two or so days a week. That meant they were working under 20 hours a week - the threshold that requires employers to provide health insurance.

Clark was facing down eviction again in December. Business was so bad at the the three different jobs she's held since March that she kept getting laid off.

While the situation grew dire for one class of workers, the others were looking pretty good.

Higher-income Americans weren't just saving more - they were spending less (and consistently spending less than lower-income Americans). They could refinance their mortgages at great prices (32% of lower-income Americans had difficulty making mortgage payments in September). And they were still working from home, even as companies turning record profits offered little (or no) hazard pay to its frontline workers.

Read more: America's miserable K-shaped Christmas


Better-off Americans aren't just sitting around and profiting - they're trying to give back

Some millionaires have explicitly asked for a wealth tax to help address the pandemic. Billionaire MacKenzie Scott has given away $4 billion over the last 4 months.

Morris Pearl is the chair of Patriotic Millionaires. They're a group of millionaires who have advocated for higher taxes on themselves, and for average Americans to be able to hold the same power as millionaires.

"Basically our message is that the current level of inequality is just unsustainable in our nation, and we need to do something about it," he said, "And it's in our own best interests, our own long-term enlightened self-interest to do something about it."

He said that, throughout 2020, the public discourse has been "moving greatly in our favor." He's felt encouraged by President-elect Joe Biden wanting to tackle "people just falling further and further behind."

John Leer, an economist at Morning Consult, which tracks consumer confidence, spoke to Insider prior to the new stimulus package's passage. He said the new bill is "a step in the right direction," but pointed out that it'll still "disproportionately benefit" higher-income consumers by helping their companies keep them employed and indirectly boosting housing prices, an asset that will only amplify the "wealth effect" among higher-income Americans. Meanwhile, lower-income workers are less likely to receive the $300 in additional weekly benefits.


The legislation contains the original benefits of the CARES Act, but halved - $600 stimulus checks and $300 in additional weekly unemployment benefits (and for 10 weeks, not 16).

Leer said he anticipates it taking at least a decade for those hardest hit by the pandemic to recover from the recession (and that's without taking into account the preexisting income inequality).

But it can be difficult to truly comprehend the scope and magnitude of employment and inequality in America right now; we may not even be able to psychologically wrap our heads around the numbers.

Instead, take it from Clark, who prior to the stimulus' passage said she'd put any money she receives towards paying off her apartment.

"There's a lot of people that don't - they're not living this life. Their whole life hasn't changed any, and a lot of it has for the rest of us," she told Insider. "We just want the world to go back to normal. That's all we all want, I think."