It’s now become clear that quarantine isn’t a matter of weeks, but months. Being stuck at home for an extended period of time has affected many out-of-school plans: studying abroad, semester-long research or jobs and, of course, our summers. This past week, I watched my summer internship and back-up plans fall apart.
This sense of frustration is new. We can’t just apply to more programs or find other opportunities. No matter how hard we try, we can’t escape coronavirus. This lack of agency is unfamiliar, and contradicts the narrative we tell ourselves. We’re taught that we can control — and are thus responsible for — our success. After all, isn’t that how we got into Yale? Perfection is within reach: We just need to work harder.
Our workaholic culture is rooted in American capitalist ideals. Nothing reveals this more clearly than the American dream, which argues that anyone — no matter their class, race or family — can achieve something in their lives. Achieving these goals is a solo, not community effort. Indeed, institutions like Yale — and the type of success they represent — are the pinnacle of individualism. Admission supposedly comes from a student’s hard work and intellectual merit. We never accept our circumstances — we constantly strive for better. That’s why the sentence “It is what it is” is probably the hardest one in the English language for Yalies to understand.
Of course, the idea of pure meritocracy has been dead for a long time, both in college admissions and in the economy. Through unequal public education, low wages, anti-labor laws, or capital gains taxes, our country is structured to favor the racial and socioeconomic elite. The veneer of the dream exists, however, and individualism continues to guide American culture and economic policy. Discourse about welfare and issues like universal basic income, for example, are tinged with accusations of “laziness.”
The American dream may have been dying, but COVID-19 nailed the coffin shut. It is increasingly clear that survival is not merely our choice. Instead, it is dependent on our circumstances and the actions of those around us. Denying this reality costs lives. Just two weeks ago a public bus driver posted a video complaining that a passenger coughed without covering their mouth. Shortly afterwards, he died of COVID-19.
Beyond health, the origin of the American dream — economic success — is also faltering. Over the last three weeks, almost 17 million Americans filed for unemployment, many for the first time. This trend is the result of quarantines adversely affecting business, rather than individual failure. Then why do we act like it is?
Of course, the realization that your life and success are not merely in your hands is nothing new. But it is certainly a shock for the privileged parts of society, including students at Yale. That’s because when you’re successful, it’s easy to attribute success to your strengths rather than your luck. Perhaps this is why our president cannot understand why he can’t open the economy up again, because he is used to controlling his wealth and life.
It’s time we give up the pretense of individualism, or we’ll never be able to recover from this crisis. This is no more evident than in our emergency relief bill. Unlike other countries, Congress prioritized extending unemployment benefits instead of protecting employment. The bill — and the legislators drafting it — made the faulty assumption that once the virus is over, people can return to normal and retake control of their lives. But those 17 million Americans did not lose jobs for fault of their own, and will have difficulty reentering a recession economy.
Other countries, such as the UK, understood that personal effort is not the only explanation for economic well-being. Their stimulus bill pays workers 80 percent of their original wages, allowing companies to protect jobs. Instead of temporary payouts, people are receiving incomes and continued support after the crisis.
This has proven to be a more effective strategy than ours. In the 2009 recession, for example, Germany fared better than many of its counterparts. Part of the reason was that Germany made a concerted effort to keep workers employed, rather than dealing with a mass of unemployed people. Why do we continue to promote policies we know don’t work?
I am not arguing that people do not have agency, nor that individualism is always bad. Hard work does play a role in success, and individualism can motivate people to achieve. But we must recognize that these are not the only factors that determine who “wins.” The myth of the American dream will cost us dearly, and American workers will pay the price.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .