The Pressing Problem of American Income Inequality: An Analysis of Zone One and the Washington Post

Income inequality is a dire problem that is exponentially worsening in the contemporary United States. Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s Washington Post article “The Painful Truth about Teeth” illustrates how the widening divide in wealth in the U.S. has led to the inability of working-class Americans to afford much needed dental care. Despite the clear dental health repercussions of being economically disadvantaged, the Washington Post journalists reveal that there are also social ramifications of the income gap in the United States. This dichotomization of the rich and the poor has contributed to the development of prejudice aimed at the economically less fortunate. In response, the economically disadvantaged despise the affluent for their avariciousness and condescending attitude. Comparably, Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One demonstrates how economic divisions result in the formation of an “us” vs. “them” mindset among both the rich and poor. Although American society disintegrates in Zone One as a consequence of a zombie apocalypse, memories of economic disparity from life before the plague causes socioeconomic tensions to endure. Thus, Jordan and Sullivan’s article and Whitehead’s novel similarly exemplify the social tensions in American society induced by economic inequality.

            Jordan and Sullivan’s Washington Post article covers an American working-class citizen Dee Matello who visited a free dental clinic temporarily established in Salisbury, Maryland. Over a thousand people took advantage of the clinic to treat serious dental health issues that they couldn’t previously attend to due to the expensiveness of dental care and the shortage of employer or government covered dental insurance. Matello explained how economic inequality had generated an increasingly indissoluble barrier between upper-class and underprivileged Americans. For example, Matello elucidated, “The country is way too divided between well-off people and people struggling for everything — even to see the dentist… And the worst part is, I don’t see a bridge to cross over to be one of those rich people.” By preventing the possibility of economic progress for the working-class, tensions between social classes have been aggravated as well. For instance, in reference to Washington D.C., Matello stated, “I don’t have the toys, the education, the money to live there. We have nothing in common. That divide is why you see lower income people rising up, being mad at affluent people.” Matello also indicated the upper-class’s false stereotyping of the poor to justify the U.S. wealth disparity. For example, Matello contended, “We are not staying home, not sleeping and living off the government.” The article additionally notes the complexities inherent in the American rich-poor divide. The pervasiveness of the U.S. hegemonic socioeconomic ideology that values the affluent over the working-class has influenced the economically disadvantaged to hierarchize one another. For instance, Matello explained, “Us poor people ‘status’ each other. We’re like, ‘Ah, dude, you don’t have any teeth!’ Or if you see someone with little jagged yellow stubs, you think, ‘Oh, man, you have lived here your whole life, haven’t you?’ ” Hence, by examining Matello’s statements, it is evident that as the U.S. income gap widens, the social divide between Americans continues to grow.

            Analogous to U.S. socioeconomic tension evidenced by Matello’s comments, in Zone One memories of economic, and resulting social inequality, are preserved in the remnants of American civilization. With the exception of the hoarding of resources by the fledging national government the American Phoenix, the plague had an equalizing effect on the remaining survivors who all struggled to meet their basic needs and cope with the trauma. Nevertheless, the resentment that people from different social classes harbored against one another in the pre-apocalyptic world lingered after the catastrophe occurred. For instance, a survivor Gary had been underprivileged prior to the plague outbreak. Consequently, when he eliminated the undead, Gary would imagine them as members of the upper class and channel his sustained indignation toward them. In reference to Gary’s labeling of the dead he destroyed, Gary’s comrade Mark Spitz explained, “They were the proper citizens who had stymied and condemned him and his brothers all his life, excluding them from the festivities…Where were they now, their judgements, condescending smiles?” On the other hand, Mark Spitz elucidated how his and Gary’s other companion, a well-to-do college-educated survivor by the name of Kaitlyn, retained her prejudices against the poor in the apocalyptic world. Therefore, when she eradicated the undead, she would identify them as unsubstantiated stereotypes of economically disadvantaged Americans. For example, Mark Spitz described her method of categorizing the undead, “She aimed at the rabble who nibbled at the edge of her dream: the weak-willed smokers, deadbeat dads and welfare cheats, single moms incessantly breeding…and those who only had themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit-card debt.” Thus, the economic disparity that bred contempt between groups of Americans before the crisis was strong enough to persist unscathed through the end of U.S. society as people knew it.

            If the character Gary from Zone One was a real person living in the present-day U.S., he would likely share Dee Matello’s resentment toward the American socioeconomic elite. The increasing economic disparity in the U.S. has led to a festering social conflict pitting the rich against the poor. The two socioeconomic groups have become diametrically opposed as the upper-class falsely stereotypes the working-class as indolent freeloaders. In response, the underprivileged rebuke the wealthy for their supercilious and unfair attitudes. Thus, despite the fictional nature of Whitehead’s Zone One, it nevertheless sheds light on an intractable issue in American society that is reinforced with evidence in Jordan and Sullivan’s Washington Post article. If income inequality in the United States is not addressed and solved promptly, then the social fabric of the nation will be threatened.

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