The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on inequality. People living paycheck to paycheck in service sector jobs are in a very different position to those working in salaried jobs they can do from home. Stark gaps in wealth, health and work have gone from being chronic problems to acute ones. Other inequalities have become even more consequential in a time of social distancing – such as access to a fast internet connection.
Richard V. Reeves
John C. and Nancy D. Whitehead Chair
Senior Fellow - Economic Studies
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Some worry that COVID will make class divides even deeper. Others hope that some of the emergency measures to maintain the structure of the economy will lead to positive long term shifts in our political economy. Basic income might not seem as crazy in November 2020 as it did a year ago. It is of course too early to tell. We might be at a historical political inflection point. We might be back to business as usual relatively quickly.
But class gaps are of more immediate significance. There are wide gaps by income class in both the risk posed by the virus, because of existing health conditions, and in levels of response to the risk of infection.
Class gaps in risk factors
Figure 3 above shows rates of diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) by income quintile, along with two social distancing measures gathered in recent Gallup polling. The good news is that most Americans are heeding the messages from political leaders and public health officials. Most are practicing social distancing, avoiding contact with people outside their immediate household.
The bad news is that there are some significant differences in how far and how fast people are responding, including by income (Income breakdowns were provided at my request; my thanks to Gallup) . As the chart shows, respondents in higher income brackets are more likely to say they have “avoided going to public places, such as stores or restaurants”, and to have avoided small gatherings. This suggests a possible class gradient in the risk of infection.
And there is another risk factor that differs by class too: the chances of having a health condition that amplify the impact of the virus and raise mortality rates. Diabetes and COPD are shown here, but there are other risk factors for the virus, including obesity (related of course to diabetes), respiratory conditions and heart disease. Most of these are also more prevalent among people on lower rungs of the income ladder. It is not possible to break down the income categories by health condition. But the worrying possibility is that some of people at highest risks are the ones taking more risks.
There are other gaps in the Gallup data, too, by gender, geography and above all by party affiliation. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they have “avoided small gatherings of people, such as with family or friends”, for example (52% v. 37%). Strikingly, given the media attention garnered by the Spring Break crowds on the beach, there are no differences by age group in social distancing behavior.
You need money to be a hoarder
People with money are likely to find it easier to put distance between themselves and others. They can do their work at home, connect to colleagues and friends via Zoom, and hold online happy hours with their “quarantinis”. (And to be clear – good for them). They may also be more able to get food and supplies brought to their door, and stockpile some necessities. It takes money to hoard. The Gallup data confirms that those with higher incomes are much more likely to say they have “stocked up on food, medical supplies or cleaning supplies”:
Working from home is a privilege
It is also easier to be physically distant if you can remain professionally engaged. But of course, the capacity to work from home is highly dependent on your occupation. Among those who are employed, there are large gaps by income in those reporting that they have worked from home, compared to those who have stayed at home but been unable to work:
Class in the time of coronavirus
The COVID shock to our economy is obviously huge. (For a good overview see this Q&A with Jay Shambaugh). The questions are how best to shock-proof the economy and protect the most vulnerable households, which may include many of those in the middle class, as Isabel Sawhill writes. As Congress attempts to get a Bill signed and out of the door, ideas for how best to exert the economic power of government are being generated on a daily basis. See proposals on our pages from Jonathan Rothwell here and from Bradley Hardy and James Ziliak here.
A big question is how policymakers can balance the risks and costs of the virus against the costs and risk of a sustained economic downturn. President Trump has expressed hope that America will be open for business again on Easter Sunday. Public health officials are desperately trying to water down that promise. Regardless of the electoral implications, it is not at all clear which businesses need to be shut down, in which locations, and for how long in order to prevent mass death and tremendous strains on hospitals.
These are difficult decisions, macro versions of the micro life-and-death decisions being taken by health care workers. If ever there was a time for evidence-based policy, founded on good data, this is it. But as policy is being shaped, on a daily basis, the impact on Americans with fewer economic means should be at the forefront of our minds.
Hannah Van Drie provided excellent research assistance for this article.