The pandemic will cleave America in two

The answers to each of these two questions—whether someone still has a job, and whether they can do it safely—strongly predict how any given American household is faring right now. To illustrate this, Rashawn Ray, the Brookings fellow, talked me through the probable realities of people who can do their job from home and people who are currently out of work.

The former group is likely to be salaried, and can limit their trips outside the house. They may have children to look after and stress over, but, barring any health concerns, they’re doing fine. “Their job is safe, their salary and wages are safe, their mortgage and house is safe … and they’re able to go to the grocery store and load up on a whole bunch of groceries,” Ray said. Maybe they even choose to have the groceries delivered.

The latter group “is living a completely different life right now,” Ray told me. Perhaps they were already living paycheck to paycheck, but now that they’ve been laid off or furloughed, they’re not sure how they’ll be able to pay their usual expenses, let alone stock up on food and supplies. “A lot of people who don’t have money coming into the household are worried about losing their apartment or house, they’re worried about the fact that they can’t get access easily to the food they need, and now they’re sitting at home with families, with children, trying to figure out what’s happening,” Ray said.

Andrew Noymer, the public-health professor, put it more concisely: “Someone is at home wondering how he’s going to make rent and feed his family,” he said. “And someone else is wondering if they can binge-watch the first season of The Sopranos or whatever.”