The Economic and Social Turmoil of COVID-19 with Victor Tan Chen

May 13, 2020

Victor Tan Chen, Ph.D.

VCU Sociology Researcher and Instructor Victor Tan Chen, Ph.D.

In spite of the chaos caused by COVID-19, it has been an impressively productive semester for Victor Tan Chen, Ph.D. In addition to transitioning his courses online and advising a total of six graduate thesis students, Dr. Chen co-authored a piece in The Atlantic and voiced his expertise on Katie Couric’s acclaimed podcast, Next Question. An expert on labor markets, unemployment, and social inequality, Victor’s research is more salient now than ever. Prior to COVID-19, Dr. Chen has been a prolific contributor to myriad academic fields including unemployment, poverty, and meritocracy. As this global pandemic causes these trends to escalate, his latest contributions voice scholarly analysis of the current situation. 

On a recent iteration of the podcast Next Question with Katie Couric, Victor highlights the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 unemployment crisis, “Most of the estimates for unemployment in April will be around the lines of 20 percent. At the peak of the great depression, in 1933, unemployment was 20 percent, maybe 25 if you count all the people that were in work relief programs.” Victor explains, “At the height of the great recession we reached 10 percent unemployment. So we are at the start of this crisis and yes we already see numbers that are comparable to the Great Depression.” As opposed to the financial crises of the Great Depression and Great Recession, the shut-down of the pandemic represents a much different economic policy problem than our past experiences. Standing out from other scholars on the subject, Dr. Chen’s acute understanding of historical trends in social inequality brings a historical-concreteness to his analysis.

In an Atlantic piece co-authored with UMass Amherst professor, Ofer Sharone, Dr. Chen and his colleague warn that the second phase of the ensuing unemployment crisis is sure to be marked with continued trouble. According to Chen and Sharone, this phase will likely include worker displacement, increasing automation, and the destruction of many small businesses. Prior to COVID-19, these trends were documented and researched extensively. However, these scholars argue that this crisis will accelerate such turmoil by the increasing pressure on the economy. As a result,social turmoil will likely follow, playing out as moralizing anger directed at employers, politicians, and scapegoats. 

Scholars of social inequality, like Dr. Chen, point out that the current crisis has largely acted to highlight and exacerbate long-standing vulnerabilities. In recent decades, the U.S. has been internationally characterized by its striking job precarity, lack of sufficient social safety-net, and severe income inequality. With the escalation of the crisis, all of these trends have been brought to the forefront of public attention. While the government has responded with financial stimuli for businesses and individuals, the question of how much relief will be provided and for how long remain key questions on everyone’s minds. 

As the crisis and its aftershocks continue to unfold, there is little doubt that Victor Tan Chen will continue to voice his expertise and teach on its impacts to our social and economic realities. Be sure to have a look through his past and current work linked throughout this story, above.

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