Today I looked at a graph of income inequality over time in America. This was not new information to me, and yet it was still shocking.
From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Americans grew richer together. Some Americans were poor and others were rich, but their incomes, adjusted for inflation, grew at the same pace. Income roughly doubled for all.
Recently, Trump issued an executive order declaring America a “meritocracy” where hard work and skill are fairly rewarded. If America’s inequality reflects a meritocracy and the wealthy grew richer while everyone else didn’t, is the president calling the majority of the American people stupid and lazy?
I am in my seventh year of a PhD program. Everyone around me is in a difficult position. COVID-19 has hobbled the economy.
The freshmen are missing out on the normal college experience right after they all missed their proms and graduation ceremonies. Some of them are living in quarantined dorms where some students have COVID. I can’t imagine how worried their parents must be. And the upperclassmen will graduate into an economy that set records for the worst unemployment since the Great Depression this year.
Graduate students are struggling to do fieldwork under quarantine. The academic job market is wrecked. Nobody knows what this will mean for our futures. How will I pay my student loan debt? I’ve done my part to get my education, and I am on track to be qualified for a job. But will there be any jobs?
The people around me are lucky. They are at an excellent state university, in training for professional jobs. How much more are others suffering compared to us right now? Many Americans are suffering far worse than missing out on frat parties.
Over 200,000 are now dead from the coronavirus, and millions more are alive but suffering in various ways — mourning lost family members, suffering long term health complications, risking their lives to go to work, or out of work and in need of income.
I think I am saddest for people who lose family members during this time. You need friends and family with you when you grieve, and too many have had to bear that burden alone.
Meanwhile, the person responsible for the safety of our nation, who has mishandled the coronavirus from the start, was living in luxury and sleeping with a porn star while he wasn’t even paying his taxes.
Donating your salary is not that noble when you are gaining much more than that by dodging taxes. Implying that you got where you did through merit when it was cheating — and that the millions of Americans with less wealth than you have less merit — is an insult.
We live in a deeply unequal society, and we are led by someone who benefits from that inequality. No executive order should gaslight us into thinking that’s fair.
*OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.