By Siggy Raible
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” So begins Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859. Set in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a time leading up to the French Revolution and our own War of Independence, Dickens paints a morally bankrupt picture of Paris and London. I open this essay with his words because some Americans are living through a similar period, depending on where they find themselves economically situated.
If you were lucky enough to have money invested in the stock market during the pandemic year of 2020, you are living in the best of times. Depending on how, and how much of, your money was invested, you could have seen a return of twelve percent or more. Most of these income earners have well-paying jobs, allowing them to work from home while earning salaries in relative safety from the virus; with reduced discretionary expenses, such as vacations and dining out, they can watch their savings grow.
If, however, you are unlucky enough to be considered an essential worker, you are living in the worst of times. You are expected to show up at a meager-paying hourly wage service job, (mind you, at great risk to your health and that of your family), to serve those lucky enough to work from the relative comfort of their homes. That is, if you have a job at all.
One year into the pandemic there are ten million fewer service workers earning a living. With the loss of a job, many of these workers, if they even had health insurance, find they cannot afford the premiums and co-pays. Without an income, the unemployed must figure out how to pay for their daily living expenses—food, rent, electricity, medication, etc. There is no discretionary “savings;” there is nothing to save.
Luckily, for today’s unemployed there are no debtors’ prisons. During Dickens’ own lifetime (1812-1870), if you were penniless and in debt in London before 1869, you and your family could end up in debtors’ prison. John Dickens, Charles’ father, found himself and some of his family members locked up in Marshalsea debtors’ prison. To pay off his father’s debts, Dickens was forced to leave school at age twelve to work ten-hour days at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse pasting labels on jars of what, today, we call shoe polish. While we’ve done away with debtors’ prisons, we still have not tackled the problem of income inequality. In the twenty-first century we have, instead, chosen a feel-good moniker to extol the efforts made by our front-line workers … they can bask in the glory of knowing they are our heroes.
Whether you were living during the American and French Revolutions, Dickens’ nineteenth century London, or are living now in twenty-first century New York City, it seems we have not come to grips with the vast discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. Will we ever?