MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Hector Torrez was living in the basement because his wife told him to. He had done nothing wrong, committed no matrimonial transgression. He simply worked at the wrong place.
The irony of it was, he had taken the job at his wife’s urging. He had spent eleven years unemployed, ever since losing his $170,000-per-year tech-industry job during the Great Recession. He had fallen into despondency and depression, the trough of the fifty-something person cast aside in an industry that privileged youth. The family had gotten by on the income of his wife, Laura, who sold training sessions for medical diagnostic equipment, but they eventually had to downsize to a smaller house in the Denver suburb where they had moved after fleeing their $5,500 monthly mortgage in the Bay Area in 2006.
Eventually, Laura had issued an ultimatum—if Hector didn’t get a job, he couldn’t stay. So he had left, moving back with his family, Central American immigrants who had settled in California decades earlier. He lived with his older sister’s family in an exurb of San Francisco. If he left the house, he had to be home by eight-thirty every night so as not to disturb his brother-in-law, who woke at four-thirty every morning for his long drive to Silicon Valley, making him one of the more than 120,000 Bay Area workers who commuted more than three hours every day.
After five months of this, Hector had accepted Laura’s offer to return, on the condition that he get a job, which he finally did half a year later, in June 2019. He was driving by the warehouse one day and saw a sign that they were hiring and pulled over and asked about it, and they said he could start the next day.
He worked overnights, four nights a week, typically from 7:15 p.m. to 7:15 a.m. He worked all over the warehouse—stacking boxes in outbound trailers, loading packages onto pallets, and inducting envelopes and packages, which meant standing at the conveyor belts for the entire shift (there were no chairs on the warehouse floor) and transferring hundreds of items per hour from one carousel to another, while turning them right side up so that scanners could read their codes.
He lifted a lot of boxes, some as heavy as fifty pounds—the challenge wasn’t so much the weight as that you couldn’t really tell, based on size, whether a box was going to be heavy or not when you went to pick it up. Your body and your mind never knew what to expect. He wore a back brace for a while, but it would get so hot that he felt like he was being cooked. His elbow tendinitis flared up. He often walked more than a dozen miles per shift, according to his Fitbit—he thought the device must be wrong and got a new pedometer, but it said the same thing. He put on a topical numbing cream before he went to work, took ibuprofen pills while he was at work, and, when he got home, stood on ice packs, put ice on his elbow, and soaked his feet in Epsom salts. He switched shoes often to spread the impact across the sole. He made $15.60 per hour, a fifth of what he was making at the tech job, and infinitely more than what he was making unemployed.
The warehouse in Thornton, sixteen miles north of Denver, had opened just a year earlier, in 2018. Its general manager, Clint Autry, was a seven-year veteran of the company who had already helped open several other facilities around the country; he had even helped test the radio-wave-emitting vests that workers wore when they had to step near the path of the “drive unit” robots that carried around big tubs of merchandise, to warn off their fully automated coworkers. “The whole name of the game is getting the product to the customer in the quickest, most cost-effective way based on shipping costs,” Autry declared on a grand-opening tour of the building.
The ramp-up at the warehouse started in mid-March of 2020, same as everywhere else around the country, as the coronavirus lockdowns took hold. Orders soared to holiday levels as millions of Americans decided that the only safe way to shop was from their home. It was just nine months into Hector’s time at the company, yet he was the only one who remained from his orientation class of twenty—the others either hadn’t been able to handle the pace, or had gotten injured, or had been terminated because they had run out of excused absences after getting injured. Now turnover had climbed even higher than usual as many decided they couldn’t handle the stress of the surge and the risk of the close quarters in the warehouse. As the number of workers dwindled, the pressure on those that remained rose. The company demanded that Hector work overtime—five twelve-hour night shifts per week. With longer shifts and one less day of rest, the tendinitis got worse.
He found out about his coworker, with whom he worked closely every day, not from the company but from other workers. The coworker, a man in his forties, had stopped coming in, and Hector had assumed he had simply drifted away like so many others. But then came word that he had the virus and that he’d been very sick. Hector relayed this to Laura, and she got worried about the family, especially her elderly mother, who lived with them and suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. So Laura sent him to the basement. It was unfinished, but they set up a bed and got a little refrigerator and a microwave and a coffee maker. He snuck upstairs to use the bathroom.
What bothered Laura was that they were figuring it out all on their own. Hector had gotten no notice about the coworker. He had gotten no information about how to respond to the risk of contagion. There was no 1-800 number to call. When she had gone online looking for any tips the company offered about how to deal with situations like this, all she found was the company’s page touting everything it was doing as a corporation to deal with the crisis. “They may be doing quite a bit,” she said, but the company “is also profiting every step along the way on the backs of their employees, who are not being protected, and neither are their families being protected.”
She couldn’t help but feel some regret for having goaded Hector there in the first place. “They call themselves a technology company, but it’s really a sweatshop,” she said. “They have such a hold on our economy and our country.”
* * *
Like all great crises, the global pandemic of 2020 revealed the weaknesses of nations it attacked. In the case of the United States, that weakness was the extraordinary inequality across different places and communities. When it reached the country, the coronavirus first struck its upper echelons, the highly prosperous precincts that had tighter connections with their global peers than with scruffier places in their own backyard: Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Manhattan. But within weeks it had leached into less privileged redoubts, as if guided by an unerring homing instinct for the most vulnerable, among whom it would do the most damage: up in the Bronx, where confirmed cases were twice as likely to be fatal as elsewhere in the city; in central Queens, where it ravaged small houses packed with large families of Bangladeshi and Colombian cab drivers and restaurant workers, and where a hospital demanded that a boy come up with the money for his mother’s cremation while his father lay in intensive care, unlikely to survive; in Detroit, where far more people would die than in Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin combined; and in the small city of Albany, Georgia, where a single funeral seeded a contagion that led to more than sixty deaths within a few weeks in a county of only 90,000 people. “It hit like a bomb,” the county coroner said. “Every day after [the funeral], someone was dying.”
No one should have been surprised by the disparity of the impact, because the divides had been there for anyone to see, getting more noticeable by the year, wherever your travels took you. Maybe you were driving into metropolitan Washington, D.C., from the mountains in West Virginia or western Virginia or western Maryland. One minute you were in small, underpopulated towns blasted by the opioid scourge and bereft of any retail except the omnipresent chain dollar store. Barely an hour later you were heading into the capital’s great exurban maw on a ten-lane interstate, creeping past glass and concrete cubes with inscrutable corporate acronyms, in some of the very wealthiest counties in the country.
Or maybe you were taking the train out of Washington, getting off less than an hour later in Baltimore and experiencing a drop in atmospheric pressure extreme enough to cause dizziness. From a city teeming with money and young strivers to one that was full of emptiness. You emerged from the handsome Beaux Arts train station into a plaza that was too quiet, a major downtown thoroughfare that was too quiet. At a gas station two blocks away, two people—white woman, Black man—were sitting on the ground, in plain view outside the teller door, snorting something off the back of their fists.
The gaps were everywhere. Between booming Boston and declining industrial cities like Lawrence, Fall River, and Springfield. Between New York and the struggling upstate cousins of Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Between Columbus and the smaller Ohio cities it was pulling away from: Akron, Dayton, and Toledo on down to Chillicothe, Mansfield, and Zanesville. Between Nashville, the belle of the Upper South, and its poor relation, Memphis.
The country had always had richer and poorer places, but the gaps were growing wider than they had ever been. Through the final decades of the nineteenth century and for the first eight decades of the twentieth century, as the country grew into the richest and most powerful nation on earth, poorer parts of the country had been catching up with richer ones. But starting in 1980, this convergence reversed. In 1980, virtually every area of the country had mean incomes that were within 20 percent of the national average—only metro New York and Washington, D.C., fell above that band, and only parts of the rural South and Southwest fell below it. But by 2013, virtually the entire Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington and the Northern California coast had incomes more than 20 percent above average. Most startlingly, a huge swath of the country’s interior had incomes more than 20 percent below average—not only the rural South and Southwest but much of the Midwest and Great Plains as well. As for the places already wealthy in 1980, they were now off the charts. Income in the Washington area was a quarter higher than in the rest of the country in 1980. By the middle of 2015, that gap was more than twice as large.
Yet even as the regional divides grew, they got relatively little attention. The inequality debate focused on individual income—the top 1 percent and bottom 99 percent, and so on—rather than on the landscape of inequality across the country. To the extent the regional problem got notice, it was often described as an urban-rural divide, and it was true: rural America was in crisis. But the divide was also between cities—between a handful of winner-take-all metropolises and a much larger number of left-behind rivals. Job growth was almost twice as fast in the first six years after the Great Recession in large metro areas as in small ones, and income grew 50 percent faster. A few generations ago, urban prosperity spread across the country: in the 1960s, the twenty-five cities with the highest median income included Cleveland, Milwaukee, Des Moines, and Rockford, Illinois. Now, nearly all the richest cities were on the coasts. Wages in the very largest cities in the country had grown nearly twenty percentage points more since 1970 than wages in the rest of the country’s cities. By 2019, more than 70 percent of all venture capital was flowing to just three states: California, New York, and Massachusetts. “A handful of metro areas have seen such concentrations of wealth almost unprecedented in human history, while a much larger set has seen their jobs evaporate and their economic bases contract,” wrote the sociologist Robert Manduca.
As this regional inequality grew, so did its consequences. There was, above all, the political cost, a rising resentment in the left-behind places that made voters susceptible to racist and nativist appeals from opportunistic candidates and cynical TV networks. Economic decline did not excuse racism and xenophobia—rather, it weaponized it. Such resentment carried especially strong weight in the American political system, which apportions power by land, not just population, most obviously in the Senate. As regions declined and emptied out, those left behind retained outsized clout to express bitterness.
But the damage went beyond that. Regional inequality was making parts of the country incomprehensible to one another—one world wracked with painkillers, the other tainted by elite-college admission schemes. It was making it difficult to settle on nationwide programs that could apply across such wildly disparate contexts—in one set of places, the housing crisis was about blight and abandonment, while in the other, it was all about affordability and gentrification.
Inequality between regions was also worsening inequality within regions. The more prosperity concentrated in certain cities, the more it concentrated within certain segments of those cities, exacerbating long-standing imbalances or driving those of lesser means out altogether. Dystopian elements in cities such as San Francisco—the homeless defecating on sidewalks in a place with $24 lunch salads and one-bedroom apartments renting for $3,600 on average; high-paid tech workers boarding shuttles to suburban corporate campuses while lower-paid workers settled for 200-square-foot “micro-apartments” or dorm-style arrangements with shared bathrooms or predawn commutes from distant cities such as Stockton—were a feature of both local and national inequality.
The growing imbalance of wealth was making life harder in both sorts of places. It was throwing the whole country off-kilter.
* * *
Economists and sociologists who worried about this new reality began trying to identify its causes. To some degree, regional inequality was simply a corollary of income inequality, which itself, by 2018, had grown wider than it had been in the five decades since the census started tracking it—so wide that Moody’s issued a warning that it could threaten the country’s credit profile and “negatively affect economic growth and its sustainability.” As the very rich got ever richer, so did the places where they had always tended to live.
But there were other factors, too. There was the nature of the tech economy, which encouraged agglomeration of talent. There was the changing nature of employment: the less you could expect to spend a career with one company, the more you wanted to be somewhere where there were many employers in your field. With the rise of the two-income couple, you wanted to be somewhere where both of you could find fulfilling work.
There were social dynamics. The country’s most successful people were seeking each other out, taking mutual comfort in their comfortable lives, to a degree they never had before. Even within cities, the wealthy had become more likely to live with each other—from 1980 to 2010, the share of upper-income households living in wealthy neighborhoods, rather than more mixed ones, had doubled. Meanwhile, further down the ladder, fraying social bonds and the collapse of the traditional family—trends driven partly by the diminished prosperity in left-behind places—were making it less likely that you were going to move somewhere with greater opportunity. If you were a single mother, you couldn’t leave behind the relative who provided childcare, even if you could hope to afford rent in a thriving city.
It was no accident that wealth was growing more concentrated in certain places at the same time as whole sectors of the economy—three-quarters of all U.S. industries, by one estimate—were growing more concentrated in certain companies. This trend had been underway for decades as the federal government had relaxed its opposition to corporate consolidation, and it caused regional imbalance in all sorts of ways. Airline mergers led to less service in smaller cities, which made it harder for them to attract businesses. Consolidation in agriculture meant that less of the money spent on food ended up with those who had actually produced it in rural areas and small towns. Mergers in sectors like banking and insurance meant that many small and midsize cities lost corporate headquarters and the economic and civic benefits that came along with them.
Put most simply, business activity that used to be dispersed across hundreds of companies large and small, whether in media or retail or finance, was increasingly dominated by a handful of giant firms. As a result, profits and growth opportunities once spread across the country were increasingly flowing to the places where those dominant companies were based. With a winner-take-all economy came winner-take-all places.
To the extent that regional inequality and economic concentration were being written about, it was often on their own terms, without relation to one another. In fact, they were intertwined. And as I began to think about this intertwining, it became clear that one of the most natural ways to tell this story was through Amazon, a company that was playing an outsized role in this zero-sum sorting. To take a closer look not so much at the company itself, exactly—that would be the terrain of other accounts—but rather, to take a closer look at the America that fell in the company’s lengthening shadow.
The company was an ideal frame for understanding the country and what the country was becoming, given how many contemporary forces it represented and helped explain. There was the extreme wealth inequality encapsulated by its founder’s outlandish personal fortune and the modest wages of the vast preponderance of its employees. There was the nature of the work most of them were engaged in: rudimentary and isolating, out on the edge of town, often with unreliable hours and schedules. There was the immense influence the company had amassed over the country’s elected government, both in the states and in Washington, where it had insinuated itself into the power structure of the nation’s capital. There was the unraveling of the civic fabric that the company contributed to, through its undermining of face-to-face commercial activity and the tax base of countless communities. In upending how we consumed—the ways that we fulfilled ourselves—it had recast daily life at its most elemental level.
Copyright © 2021 by Stefan Alexander MacGillis