White-Collar Quarantine

Everything is easier with money.

In my March 19 post “The Inequality of Coronavirus,” written on my first day of telecommuting to help contain the disease, I observed,

[W]e’re extremely fortunate to not only be able to telecommute but continue to receive our full pay and rather generous health benefits. And my uniformed military colleagues and students have better benefits, still.

For us, then, we can go about our daily activities with comparatively little worry. Sure, we need to protect ourselves and family from the disease. And we have a responsibility to social distance for the sake of the less fortunate and the stability of the healthcare system. That all stinks. But we’re not worried about losing our jobs, much less paying for testing and care should we become symptomatic.

A recent NYT feature (“‘White-Collar Quarantine’ Over Virus Spotlights Class Divide“) amplified that point:

In some respects, the pandemic is an equalizer: It can afflict princes and paupers alike, and no one who hopes to stay healthy is exempt from the strictures of social distancing. But the American response to the virus is laying bare class divides that are often camouflaged — in access to health care, child care, education, living space, even internet bandwidth.

In New York, well-off city dwellers have abandoned cramped apartments for spacious second homes. In Texas, the rich are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to build safe rooms and bunkers.

And across the country, there is a creeping consciousness that despite talk of national unity, not everyone is equal in times of emergency.
“This is a white-collar quarantine,” said Howard Barbanel, a Miami-based entrepreneur who owns a wine company. “Average working people are bagging and delivering goods, driving trucks, working for local government.”

[…]

Still, a kind of pandemic caste system is rapidly developing: the rich holed up in vacation properties; the middle class marooned at home with restless children; the working class on the front lines of the economy, stretched to the limit by the demands of work and parenting, if there is even work to be had.

The piece goes into great details on the inequalities of balancing sudden childcare demands with a job where you don’t get paid—and, indeed, get fired—if you don’t show up, and the like.

The fact that a handful of the ultra-rich have the option to ride it out in a fancy vacation home at the beach has captured a lot of attention of late and, while I understand that this can strain the local communities, it really seems like a distraction. It’s really a boutique issue not worth the coverage it’s getting.

Another issue highlighted by the piece is that far too many kids don’t have broadband access at home, which is a problem now that so many school districts have shifted to online instruction. A WaPo report (“‘It shouldn’t take a pandemic’: Coronavirus exposes Internet inequality among U.S. students as schools close their doors“) from earlier in the month does a more thorough job.

The burden often falls heavily on younger students, who may struggle to complete their classwork even during a normal school week because of technological and economic barriers. But the disruptions wrought by the novel coronavirus threaten to exacerbate those digital woes, raising the question of whether the U.S. government and the telecom industry should have done more to cure the country’s digital divide — well before a pandemic gripped the nation.

“With coronavirus, we’re about to expose just how challenging our digital divide is, and just how unequal access to broadband is,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission. “We’re going to have a reckoning.”

Ironically, a lot of school districts have decided that giving everyone equally shitty instruction is better than giving those with access the best and leaving those without it behind.

Many of the roughly 136,500 students in Prince George’s County, Md., likely have some way to get online at home. But local officials last week said they still came to the conclusion they couldn’t ensure all of them did — so the district couldn’t shift classes fully to the Web starting Monday, when state schools close for the next two weeks. Instead, district educators have put together packets of instructional materials.

“We could not guarantee a family in Baden, Maryland, had access. Nor could I guarantee a family in District Heights, Maryland, that may be eligible for free and reduced meals, had access to technology and the Internet,” said Christian Rhodes, the chief of staff for Prince George’s County Public Schools. “That led to our decision.”

We’ve done the same thing in Virginia. Even though Fairfax County is the second most affluent in the entire country (trailing only neighboring Loudoun County), the schools decided to take a hiatus from instruction to burn up unused snow days and then send out packets.

As I’ve noted before, broadband access is really the least of our problems with educational access. The whole system of funding schools with local property taxes is unconscionable.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Economics and Business, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    IIRC W became “the education governor” because the state lost a court case and was forced to equalize spending.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    My experience with online education is that it is a joke, a very bad joke, if the parent can not or will not dedicate the time necessary to ensure their child’s actual learning.

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  3. Paine says:

    Yea… I live in a small town in eastern Washington where the local K-12 schools are closed. I was talking with a mom last night who told me the school is offering remote classes for the kiddos but she doesn’t have wifi at home. Normally, she could just go to the library for wifi but that is closed too. I’m pretty well covered in wifi service everywhere I go (home, work, coffee shops, etc.) so was stunned to be reminded that not everyone is so fortunate. She told me I was pretty lucky to be able to continue with my job from home and I heartily agreed.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    The fact that a handful of the ultra-rich have the option to ride it out in a fancy vacation home at the beach has captured a lot of attention of late and, while I understand that this can strain the local communities, it really seems like a distraction. It’s really a boutique issue not worth the coverage it’s getting.

    For good or ill, as a society, we’re obsessed with the lives of the wealthy.

    The whole system of funding schools with local property taxes is unconscionable.

    +1

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  5. Kit says:

    The fact that a handful of the ultra-rich have the option to ride it out in a fancy vacation home at the beach has captured a lot of attention of late and, while I understand that this can strain the local communities, it really seems like a distraction. It’s really a boutique issue not worth the coverage it’s getting.

    Yes and no. The rise of the ultra rich correlates precisely with the decline of American government and infrastructure. Will the ultra rich go wanting for respirators? If the shit really hits the fan, will they go wanting for security? They are like their elite brethren in Beijing who don’t even breathe the same air as the masses. If the riches they have amassed allow them to escape even the common fate of a pandemic, then just where will they ever stop? When a $2 trillion emergency package needs funds set aside to line their bottomless pockets because, hey, they need theirs, then I think that papers can find a few paragraphs to constantly remind us just where things stand.

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  6. Franklin says:

    One of my three kids is in private school (not precisely rich here, but solidly on the upper side of middle class). His school prepared beforehand, had extra devices ready to hand out to those in need, and they’re giving the best instruction (some video-conferencing during the school day) that they can muster. It will never be the same, but it’s much better than the unsupervised “online learning” that I think OzarkHillbilly is talking about.

    The other two kids in public school? Yeah, teachers are doing their best to offer things to do. But none of it is allowed to “count” because other students lack access. The public schools here are indeed handing out devices. But apparently some parents, even in well-off neighborhoods, don’t have Internet access. So the devices don’t help. I guess many of them were concerned about limiting screen time for their kids, but they’re a little screwed right now unless they can hook into their neighbor’s wifi.

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  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is where the inequality rubber hits the road. The difference in levels of suffering is staggering, and the cause has a name: the Republican Party.

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  8. DrDaveT says:

    Ironically, a lot of school districts have decided that giving everyone equally shitty instruction is better than giving those with access the best and leaving those without it behind.

    “Ironically, a lot of school districts have decided that giving blacks and whites equally shitty instruction is better than giving whites the best and leaving blacks without it.”

    Would you have said that, in the early days of desegregation? If not, what’s the difference?

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  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: I wish I had more thumbs up to give that comment.

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  10. Mu Yixiao says:

    A few (very different) reactions:

    1) Thanks for an article idea for my paper. This current crisis (and a scathing editorial) has given me leverage on the incoming Superintendent (who has suddenly become very open with news about the district, after being silent for 6 months as the HS principal). Our school district handed out Chomebooks and tablets to students below HS level–but I have no clue about the specifics on who has what level of internet access (I’ll encourage everyone with WiFi to share passwords with neighbors during this time).

    2) A libertarian response: This is a great example of why exclusive municipal contracts and laws against municipal-owned internet should be eliminated.

    3) Another reason internet access should fall under some sort of “common carrier” designation. I don’t know how it would work, but perhaps something like “for every 100 urban and 10 suburban addresses served, the ISP must provide access to 1 rural address”. And, like telephone lines, all internet lines must be shared with other ISPs at restricted profit margins.

  11. Michael Cain says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    For what it’s worth… The basic regulatory decisions regarding high-speed data service in the US were made in the mid-1990s. (1) It was far from clear that TCP/IP was going to win. X.25 had enormous amounts of money and the influence of the ITU behind it. I was one of the very few TCP/IP advocates at one of the giant telecoms in the US, and it was a lonely (and unpopular) position. It would be a very different world if X.25 had won. (2) At the time and continuing to today the FCC had, by statute, only two categories of service where HSD could be put: communications or information. To that point, no one had succeeded in making money with a service that was only data communications; they all had exclusive content (eg, AOL and Compuserve) that was considered essential for profits. So HSD went into the information category. (3) Hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in plant under the assumption that HSD will be regulated as an information service. It’s a really safe assumption that the investment would have been much smaller if it had been classed as communications.

    At the time I was an advocate for lobbying Congress for a third category of service that didn’t carry the historical baggage both information and communications had accumulated. I lost. 25 years on, it’s clear that we all lost.

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  12. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Cain:

    Nobody is operating under assumptions from 1990.

  13. Michael Cain says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    All of the regulatory structure high-speed data service operates under is based on assumptions about the world made in 1995, culminating in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Obama and the FCC tried to make up a third category in 2014-15 and were in the process of getting their butts whipped in court by the end of his term (regulatory agencies just don’t get to ignore parts of a statute). I’m in favor of a price-regulated utility model for basic service (here’s your physical connection and your IP address), and have been since the mid-1990s, but until Congress takes it up we’ll all live under those mid-1990s assumptions.

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  14. DrDaveT says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Nobody is operating under assumptions from 1990.

    To add to Michael Cain’s excellent reply…

    That’s not how infrastructure works. You inherit the assumptions of past generations, until you spend the money and make the effort to rip out what they did and replace it with something that makes new assumptions. This applies not only to how many lanes of highway we’re going to need between Podunk and Springfield (or around the beltway), but also to what kind of wire/cable/fiber we need to lay, what routing and quality of service protocols the internet is going to use, and which bands of (finite, irreplaceable) radio frequency spectrum we’re going to reserve for which uses.

    Worse yet, it applies to how our legal system interprets new stuff. Intellectual property law has still not caught up to how software is different from both novels and carburetors, and the body of precedent in that area got it badly wrong from the start. As MC points out, the statutes (and their regulatory interpretations) that control internet access were written at a time when everyone assumed that internet providers would be making their money from original value-added content. That’s like making the rules for the original telephone network on the assumption that people will primarily want telephones in order to get Muzak in their homes.

    Our highways are operating under assumptions from 1960. Our patent system is operating under assumptions from 1920. Our educational “system” is operating under assumptions from the time when 2/3 of the students needed to be available to work in the fields during the summer. Our veterans’ disability benefit schedule is based on how much a given disability would have affected potential earnings for an uneducated male in 1949*. So, alas, lots of people are operating every day — and are legally required to do so — under assumptions from 1990 or before.

    *And if you want to experience a genuine political third rail, take on the task of revising this, so that (for example) sleep apnea doesn’t automatically make you 50% disabled…

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    A libertarian response: This is a great example of why exclusive municipal contracts and laws against municipal-owned internet should be eliminated.

    Or for an anti-libertarian response: This is a great example of why internet should be a public utility on the order of electrification or telephony (at least in a bygone era).

    ETA:

    but until Congress takes it up we’ll all live under those mid-1990s assumptions.

    And what pray tell, do libertarians call that phenomenon?

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    This is where the inequality rubber hits the road. The difference in levels of suffering is staggering, and the cause has a name: the Republican Party.

    The rich being able to buy their way out of a lot of misery predates the Republican Party.

    @DrDaveT:

    Would you have said that, in the early days of desegregation? If not, what’s the difference?

    I don’t think they’re remotely comparable. But, no, I would not have advocated intentionally lowering the quality of instruction for the white kids just for the sake of fairness. The impetus should be on getting the quality of instruction for the black kids up to standard.

    Our schools are unequal because they’re funded by local property taxes. I think we should change that. But the way to do that isn’t to not use the resources at our disposal.

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  17. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t think they’re remotely comparable.

    They look alike to me. Can you offer some analysis of the important differences?

    But, no, I would not have advocated intentionally lowering the quality of instruction for the white kids just for the sake of fairness. The impetus should be on getting the quality of instruction for the black kids up to standard.

    That view had many proponents; it was called “separate but equal”. History has not been kind to those proponents.

    You cannot introduce a substantial population of disadvantaged students into a more advantaged population without decreasing, at least temporarily, the quality of the education those more advantaged kids get. This is true whether the disadvantaged population consists of black people, women, or poor people. If you are seriously proposing that we bring the educational quality for the poor up to match that of the rich, without mixing them in the same schools, you are proposing a “separate but equal” approach. There is no reason to expect that could ever work.

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