Sheltering in place and self-quarantining has been a luxury that many Americans cannot afford.
Recent studies are painting a clearer picture of who has been practicing social distancing the most during the coronavirus pandemic. And being able to stay completely at home probably depends on how much money you make, according to a new report.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis analyzed mobility data from SafeGraph, Place IQ and Google Mobility
between January 2020 and April 2020 to determine whether the amount that people have traveled outside of their homes during the pandemic varies by income. Their findings: Before the COVID-19 outbreak, mobile device location pings show that the wealthiest were the most mobile, while the poorest were the least mobile. But after states issued stay-at-home orders and began closing non-essential businesses in March and April to flatten the curve, the wealthiest became the ones most likely to stay put, while the poorest continued to leave their homes the most.
“It was a complete reversal,” writes lead author Joakim Weill, a graduate student with the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Indeed, the number of the wealthiest individuals staying completely at home jumped 25 percentage points, compared with just a 10 percentage point increase for the poorest communities staying put.
While there are other demographics (such as age, gender and politics) that determine how likely someone is to wear a face mask or avoid going to bars while cases of COVID-19 continue to spike, household income appears to largely determine how much people can stay home and stay safe.
A recent analysis sampling roughly 1,000 people in New York, Florida, Texas and California found that the top earners (averaging $233,895 a year) were almost 54% more likely to engage in social distancing than those making roughly $13,775. People pulling in more than $200K were also 12.4% more likely to socially distance themselves than those making $63,572.
And this isn’t exclusive to COVID-19. During the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic in Mexico City, when residents were also asked to stay home to stop the spread of a contagious virus, researchers also found that higher socioeconomic households spent more time staying in place compared with lower socioeconomic households.
While the most recent UC Davis report doesn’t determine exactly why the highest and lowest earners swapped places in staying home, the researchers do highlight some plausible mechanisms that are probably at play.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is that lower-income workers are less likely to have the option to work from home compared to upper- and middle-class workers. Less than 30% of workers overall can work from home, and low-wage workers have the least flexibility of all. Just 9.2% of workers in the lowest quartile of the wage distribution can work remotely, compared with 61.5% of workers in the highest quartile, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
What’s more, while 33.6 million Americans don’t have access to paid leave from work, including sick days or vacation days, it becomes even scarcer the less money they make. The Pew Research Center has found that 92% of workers in the top quarter of earnings (making more than $32.21 an hour) have access to some form of paid sick leave, compared to just 31% of those making $10.80 an hour or less.
And may of those in the lowest income brackets have become “essential workers” during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that a disproportionate number of the employees who have been called upon to keep showing up to work at health care facilities, farms, factories, grocery stores and public transportation jobs — not to mention the carriers delivering packages from retailers like Amazon
— are racial and ethnic minorities in lower-wage jobs with less flexibility. “People in these situations often cannot afford to miss work, even if they’re sick, because they do not have enough money saved up for essential items like food and other important living needs,” the CDC writes on its site.
Indeed, these workers are leaving their homes and potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus to do the work that makes it possible for many white collar employees to be able to work from home at all.
Delivery and subscription services that can save trips to the store can also be cost prohibitive for lower-income families. One-third (32%) of shoppers using meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron
and Hello Fresh
are in high-income households, for example. So people earning less money often still have to leave their homes to buy groceries, pick up prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, or run other essential errands.
Compounding this health and economic crisis, many lower-income workers are also concentrated in more densely populated areas, or living in multigenerational homes, which makes it even harder to socially-distance themselves. (City dwellers without a washer and dryer in their homes may have to travel to a laundromat to wash their clothes, for example.) New York City, which was an early epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., has found that poor, dense neighborhoods suffered the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths, while affluent neighborhoods recorded very few deaths.
The UC Davis study notes that this struggle to practice social distancing is exacerbating COVID-19’s already devastating impact on lower income and minority communities.
“This implies a double burden of COVID-19: lower-income communities appear to be most vulnerable to the economic and health impacts of the disease … and here we show that they also exhibit less of the social distancing that could buffer against it,” the report concludes. “The results highlight the urgent need for policy options to build capacity for social distancing — and other COVID-19 risk reduction measures — in lower-income regions.”