Subway riders wear masks in New York on July 20.

Subway riders wear masks in New York on July 20. STRF/STAR MAX/IPx

As Rich People Locked Down for COVID-19, the Poor Moved More

Money is a determining factor in how well people can engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research confirms.

Wealthier communities went from being the most mobile before the COVID-19 pandemic to the least mobile, according to a new study.

Meanwhile, poorer areas have gone from the least mobile to the most mobile, the researchers report.

The study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used anonymized data from mobile device location pings between January and April 2020 to find that social distancing in the United States varies strongly by income.

The study showed about a 25% jump of the wealthiest census tracts staying completely at home compared with a 10% increase in staying at home in the poorest communities.

“We found that before the pandemic, individuals in the wealthiest neighborhoods tended to be the least likely to stay completely at home on a given day,” says lead author Joakim Weill, a graduate student with the agricultural and resource economics department at the University of California, Davis. “But when the states of emergency came into play, individuals living in the wealthiest areas stayed home the most. It was a complete reversal.”

The study does not determine the causes for this reversal, though the researchers highlight plausible mechanisms and note that lower-income communities tend to have more essential workers who also have less capacity to work at home compared to people in more affluent areas.

The results indicate a double burden of the pandemic for lower-income communities, which previous studies show have higher levels of pre-existing health conditions and less access to healthcare. This study shows they also exhibit less of the social distancing that could help buffer against COVID-19.

“As policymakers are thinking about emergency relief packages, this points to the need for lower-income regions to be an area of focus in order to build capacity for social distancing and other measures critical to reduce the spread of this disease,” says senior author Michael Springborn, an environmental economist and associate professor in the environmental science and policy department.

“This is just one piece of a broader set of emerging results showing that lower-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable as the pandemic proceeds.”

The scientists compared mobility data from SafeGraph, Place IQ, and Google Mobility, which was freely shared to the researchers for the study.

Additional coauthors are from Stanford University and UC Santa Barbara.

Support for the research came from the Emergency COVID-19 Research Seed Funding provided by the California Breast Cancer Research Program of the University of California.

Source: UC Davis

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