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Economics

The Pandemic Will Reduce Inequality—or Make It Worse

The rich got even richer after the Great Recession, but the Great Depression changed the social order.
relates to The Pandemic Will Reduce Inequality—or Make It Worse
Illustration: Sophy Hollington for Bloomberg Businessweek

A recession is no picnic. A financial crisis leaves wounds that last for decades. A pandemic, though, can sow a unique kind of chaos.

The Black Death took a highly stratified medieval society and turned it upside down. With 75 million dead, Europe’s wealthy landowners couldn’t find enough people to tend their fields. When peasants—the essential workers of the day—demanded higher pay, the elites of the 14th century fought back with punitive laws, forced labor, and taxes. Even so, wages for the lowliest workers soared. In rural England, they doubled.