28/04/2020

An unequal burden

The divide between rich and poor is one of the more troubling features of American life. With the outbreak of covid-19 it may grow wider still. Lockdowns disproportionately harm blue-collar workers: many well-paid workers can continue to do their jobs from home while lower-paid ones often cannot. A recent survey found that workers earning more than $70,000 per year can perform more than 60% of their work tasks from home; for those making less than $40,000, the figure is less than 40%. Meanwhile, many poor workers deemed essential enough to keep working as usual—including grocery clerks, delivery drivers and public-transport workers—bring them into close proximity to other people, which could increase their risk of contracting the virus.

Location data from mobile phones suggest that poorer Americans are not protecting themselves from the disease as well as richer ones. According to figures from Google, which has been compiling mapping data from mobile phones to understand how stay-at-home orders have affected people’s everyday movements, Americans travelled 35% less on the week ending on April 11th (the last day for which data are available) than they did on average in the five weeks between January 3rd and February 6th. But this reduction in travel varied significantly by income. Those living in the richest 10% of counties reduced their travel by 39%; those in the poorest 10% cut their movements by just 27%.

A lack of distancing could be deadly, for a host of reasons. A statistical model built by The Economist found a link between more travel and higher-than-expected covid-19 fatality rates. According to our model, based on American counties, each one-standard-deviation increase in visits to workplaces and transit stations—which amounts to about 13% more travel—was associated with a 0.07 percentage-point increase in the share of infected people who died of covid-19. As people in poorer parts of the country continue to move around more than those in richer ones, they are more likely to die from covid-19 than those who can afford to stay home.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.