Income Inequality and Disasters

“The rich tended to escape.” is written on page 62 of Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One. The rich tended to escape. In this case the rich had escaped what one would call a plague, a plague that turned people into the living dead. Mark Spitz, a survivor and sweeper, sees first hand this effect. He sees the valuables left by those who could afford to evacuate, sees the broken glass of their lobby doors, and feels the lack of their presence. Mark Spitz finds himself “clearing out” the bodies of the poor. “A larger percentage of the poor tended to stay, shoving layaway bureaus and media consoles up against the doors.” (pg. 163), Mark Spitz is the one who sees those who are left behind. One of the first scenes that we see is of three HR ladies left behind in their place of employment, their bosses or CEOs are nowhere to be found. This is to be expected, as the rich were able to make it out, gather together, and rebuild. The poor are less fortunate, being unable to leave, they are left to survive on their own, or if that doesn’t work,  die. 

The inability to escape from disasters due to financial burdens is not a new one. Whether it is a zombie plague or an environmental disaster, the poor have always had the short end of the stick. Leaving your home behind and then replacing everything that has been destroyed is much easier when you aren’t already finding it hard to get by. Even for those who don’t face obvious financial burdens, having to rebuild after a disaster can be difficult for them. As I traveled through the world Whitehead had created, traveling and seeing what Mark Spitz saw, I couldn’t help but think of my time as an intern for the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies (http://summerinstituteofbuffalo.org/) this summer. Over the course of a week I had helped a group of eight high school freshmen undergo different human right based conversations and activities. About halfway through the week, we sat together awaiting a new challenge. A group of climate change activists had come in to teach us about the effects climate change has on natural disasters, and how that affects people in different income brackets.

“Okay so there’s a hurricane coming, we have five days to get out or get our house boarded up. We have 500 dollars to last us the entire week, unless we work, which earns 50 dollars a day. We have to be careful what we spend our money on.” I summarized to everyone. I passed around the list with the prices of the different things we could “buy”. This ranged from buying supplies to evaluating 50 or 250 miles. 

“We have to leave 50 miles before we can go 250 miles? AND we have to go those 50 miles by the end of day three or else all the hotels will fill up?” One girl asked, a bit on edge. 

I nodded, “Don’t forget that after we leave we have to buy supplies each day. The hotels won’t cover all the food and clothes we have to leave behind.” 

“But we only have 500 dollars. We’re in an almost direct line of the storm.” I could feel the weight of eight pairs of eyes on me, looking for the answers. I had already decided that I would try to let them work together as much as possible. I prefered to hand them the reins, and point out what they had missed afterwords. 

I listened, let them argue, let them figure out what they felt was the safest way to get out. They decided to work for two days, making an additional 100 dollars, before evacuating 50 miles, and then 250. We bought all our supplies and ended up only 100 dollars in debt. Everyone sighed, until we heard: 

“Alright now to see how your houses held up.” An activist came to each group, checking our location and if we had secured our houses. My group had not, it would have taken a whole day, and getting more money seemed more important. A large red “-14,000” appeared on the line labeled “additional damages”. My group looked shocked, eyes wide, mouths slightly open. At least we had been able to leave, a few groups had been less lucky, some had lost their lives because of it. 

“What? How do we repay this?” They glanced at each other, then back to me. 

“Well, this is the end of the activity itself, but try to imagine how people would actually get out of this kind of debt.”

I listened to their different answers, ranging from loans to taking on three different jobs. One girl asked about government assistance, and if that was an option. I sighed, “I’m not 100% sure on how that works. I’m lucky enough to have never been in a natural disaster. But yes, there is some government help, although at one point President Trump was looking at cutting it.” They gathered around my phones as I read about the possibility of cutting FEMA back in January. It was a time of wildfires in California, a time of devastation for many people. (You can read more on this here.) 

“How is that fair? We’d be okay if we weren’t so poor.” 

“Yeah, some of those guys made it out without an issue. They owe nothing.” 

I studied their faces, slightly unsure of how to explain that this had been the norm for a long time. When it came to escaping tragedies and danger, those with more money would always have the upper hand. The system just so happened to work in their favor. It was human nature, in a sense, to make things easier on those with money. I saw it, they’d see it, and Whitehead was aware of it too.

At the end of Zone One the skels break through the wall, swarming the city Mark Spitz and his crew have been diligently clearing out. The sea of living dead swarm the streets separating everyone. The higher ups who have banded together after escaping the first time around may still be able to escape, they may still be able to use their influence and money to get out. Mark Spitz who has been paid in socks and underwear, will not be able to just flee, he will have to fight his way out. Like those before him, Mark Spitz will have to use what he has to get by. Like those caught in any natural disaster, the fight all revolves around how to get back on one’s feet, how to overcome a huge setback. Income inequality, be it in the world of zombies or in the world of climate change, makes this fight much harder on some. Whitehead is aware that it we are not understanding of the struggles other’s face, we will continue to be unaware even after society has fallen, and we are stuck trying to pick up the pieces. After all, how can we rebuild a stronger community if we leave the most vulnerable to try to rebuild on their own?

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