Vox conflates poverty and inequality

May 20, 2022

By Tim Worstall

Vox, though its subsidiary Recode, is grossly misunderstanding the Covid pandemic. They’re saying that economic inequality made it worse – nope, it didn’t. Poverty made it worse, that’s entirely true. But poverty and inequality are different things.

Think on it, economic inequality is having less than others. This doesn’t affect the likelihood of you catching a virus, nor the effect of your having done so. Poverty is having little – that does affect both chances. The difference is clearest if we think of us all being poor with no economic inequality – the effects of the pandemic would have been worse, not better. It’s not the inequality that’s the problem, it’s the poverty. 

But Vox wants to go with the inequality argument:

“The world was ill-prepared for a pandemic, many countries were slow to develop and provide access to Covid-19 tests, and economic inequality made everything worse.”

Sure, the poor did worse. The poor do worse at everything, always. That’s why we’re all against poverty. But this just isn’t the same thing as economic inequality. To be crude about it, poverty is having no shoes, inequality is when you have two pairs of Air Jordans and I’ve two pairs of something from PayLess. I’ve got less than you but I’m not suffering the poverty of being shoeless. 

“In the U.S., one preprint paper found that working-class Americans were five times more likely to die from Covid-19 than college-educated Americans.” 

Assume that that’s true (it’s a preprint, so not reviewed as yet) it’s still not the inequality making it worse. The poor have done worse than the richer, agreed. But that difference is because of the poverty, not because of the difference – and it’s the difference that is the inequality. 

Again, think about what they’re really saying. The American poor make $25,000 a year. Just as an example, and that’s not far off being right too. So for it to be the inequality that causes the problems, the deaths, then the number of deaths must decline if all Americans only get $25k a year. Which is a ludicrous statement when we actually examine it. 

“Two years after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, Bill Gates has written How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, a book that outlines how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-founder and global health expert believes the world should prepare for future health crises — including how we can tackle the enduring problem of economic inequality that puts already-vulnerable people at even greater risk.”

The thing is, Gates doesn’t say that economic inequality is a cause of the problems nor does he say it makes the problems worse. He does say that there are things we can do to lessen the inequality. That is, aid the poor in getting rich of course. Because it’s the poverty that is the problem, not the inequality.

Vox markets itself as “explaining the news” which is a noble intention. They rank in the top 100 of U.S. media outlets and gain some 20 million visits a month as they do so. The thing is their self-declared mission would be better achieved if they did in fact explain the news.

Economic inequality is not the foundation of our problems, not even over disease and the covid pandemic. Poverty is a problem and one that nearly all of us would like to see eliminated. But the two are different things. Reducing poverty, for example, requires economic growth. The best way of achieving that is some sort of free-market capitalism – this from human experience over the centuries. But free-market capitalism generates a certain amount of economic inequality as it reduces poverty. So we’ve got to understand which of the two is important, and which of the two we want to eliminate, as we design our economic policies. To understand the distinction and then retail it to readers really would be explaining the news now, wouldn’t it?  


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