The Pandemic Made Me Richer
It will be unsurprising to some, and unjust to others, but the pandemic made me richer. While the world ground to a halt last year, my wife and I were fortunate to hunker down safely. We were protected in both profession and health. Our white collar jobs fell in the sweet spot of workers — an ability to work from home, not considered essential employees, but needed in order for our respective companies to operate properly. With relatively stable job security, we could hunker down with ease. Potential boredom presented the only threat to our health and happiness. Divorce lawyers have licked their chops during this pandemic, but they have not found any customers here.
Meanwhile, New York City roiled around us. Refrigerated trucks, destitute homeless people who could not use the subway for shelter, and mass protests flooding the streets — the city was in turmoil. Yet many other white collar New Yorkers like us did better than ever. With a large percentage of us working in the financial industry, we benefited from massive revenue gains spurred by market volatility. These favorable conditions led to record quarterly earnings for most market participants, from market makers to institutional investors. Many enjoy these record profits from the comfort and safety of their home office or couch.
While we stuck it out until our lease expired this past September, many wealthier New Yorkers escaped completely. It was not abnormal to be speaking with colleagues holed up in the Hamptons, lounging on Cape Cod, or soaking in the Florida (or even California) sun. One of my counterparts at a competitor firm told me how he and his wife rented an AirBnB on a beach in Jacksonville. He woke up each morning to the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean. I only had to walk the desolate New York City streets or turn on the local news to see the stark contrast between the “haves” and “have nots.” From the shuttered storefronts to the lines forming outside testing locations, the city felt like an empty shell of itself. Traffic had noticeably reduced, as had the activity in our apartment building, a once bustling hive of full time tenants.
It further illustrated a city suffering from growing inequality. The pandemic had exacerbated what many of us knew already existed. I would be lying though if I said I could empathize. Of the retail workers, service industry professionals, and freelancers I know, I could tell people were struggling. But that was the extent of it. I rarely left the safe confines of my apartment walls. My interactions with anyone outside my white collar world were infrequent at best.
We saved money during this time more than ever. As people who usually eat out and travel as much as possible, our entertainment expenses went to zero. I used to spend at least $15 per day on lunch and coffee. Now I made my own lunch and drank Nespresso in my kitchen each afternoon. Most significantly, I previously spent over $100 per month on Metrocards. Now my commute from bed to table was free, not to mention short.
Through all of this our salaries never changed. We were fortunate not to work in a less pandemic proof industry where many workers were forced to take pay cuts (and those were the lucky ones). If anything, we made more money, reaping the benefits of huge bonuses that were due, at least in part, to stellar firm performance. This allowed us to save enough for a downpayment. We dove head first into the boiling New York real estate market. After a few months of searching, we fled the city and settled in an “upstate” home in a more rural setting, with more space and fresh air.
Amidst these luxuries I could not thwart the feelings of unjust enrichment. A product of my industry and circumstances. A beneficiary of a city and market that had driven a wider wedge between rich and poor. Whether the pandemic ultimately forces New York City landlords to readjust and lower prices remains to be seen, but there is no question that retail workers, service industry jobs, and gig workers need more of a safety net.
What could I personally do though about these circumstances?
Should I feel bad about my pandemic riches? Should a portion of it go to those in need? My wife and I tried to support family members who found themselves unemployed, but we did not feel compelled to do more. It would have been like putting a small band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound. Some advocated buying gift cards at our favorite restaurants, ordering more takeout and delivery, and patronizing the small shops that reopened in a socially distanced fashion. We were hesitant, however, with all of these options. There was inherent uncertainty with gift cards given the economic instability of even the most financially secure restaurants, takeout and delivery still presented anxiety if not obvious health risks, and going anywhere in person was not ideal from our perspective unless necessary. FreshDirect was our lifeline though and it continues to be.
As my guilt compounded, I came to the realization that I could not solve the world’s problems. All I could do was my part. Help my family, support local businesses where I could, keep in touch with friends, and advocate for government assistance for those in need. My wife calls me a “couch protestor”, but I contend we can all do our part. Whether that is marching in the streets, broadcasting a message, or engaging in some other form of direct activism. Not everyone needs to be “ super woke “ in order to make a difference. And nobody should be ashamed of financial success, even in the midst of a pandemic where so many are suffering.
I hope this anecdotal evidence sheds some light on the inequality this pandemic has made even more apparent. While recent government efforts to provide stimulus to struggling consumers helps in the short term, structural issues remain. Economic power and wealth has concentrated itself into the hands of a few, regardless of industry. For those of us fortunate enough to work for those companies or people, life is good. For the remainder, there is understandable outrage. So while the pandemic has made me richer, it has also made me more appreciative for what I have and a strong proponent to help those less fortunate.
Originally published at https://polispandit.com on March 28, 2021.