Poorer areas have gone from being the least mobile before COVID-19 to the most mobile

Social distancing substantially varies by income in the United States, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new study provides evidence that wealthier communities went from being the most mobile before the COVID-19 pandemic to the least mobile, while poorer areas have gone from being the least mobile to the most mobile.

“My dissertation focuses on the distributional impacts of environmental policies — how and why public policies aiming to reduce environmental damages and improve resilience have different impacts on poor vs wealthy individuals,” said study author Joakim Weill, a graduate student with the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

“These are questions I think about a lot, and while I was far from expecting anything like COVID to happen, the ability of poorer individuals to stay at home became a big concern as the pandemic unfolded.”

The researchers analyzed 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 data was provided by SafeGraph, Place IQ and Google Mobility.

Weill and his colleagues found about a 25 percentage point jump of the wealthiest census tracts staying completely at home compared with a 10 percentage point increase in staying at home in the poorest communities.

“Although we observed a widespread decline in mobility during the early stages of the pandemic, wealthier areas tended to stay at home a lot more than poorer neighborhoods,” Weill told PsyPost.

“Our findings are in line with previous research showing an association between income and response to government prompts for disaster preparedness as well as increased exposure of lower-income populations to environmental harms such as air pollution. 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,” the researchers wrote in their study.

The study does not determine the causes for the differences between wealthier and poorer areas, but the researchers note that lower-income communities tend to have more essential workers.

“What remains crucial to understand are the different mechanisms that contribute to this observed association between mobility and income during the pandemic. We think that a main driver of these patterns are differences in the jobs that people do: wealthier individuals tend to have jobs that can be carried out from home, usually from a desk, whereas lower-paid jobs tend to require on-site presence,” Weill explained.

“We were not able to estimate how much differences in jobs requirements contribute to differences in social distancing by income, but that is an important aspect that should be tackled by future research.”

“We’ll hopefully get the first vaccines in a few months, but the production of vaccines is likely to be slow at the beginning, which means that we will be facing a vaccine allocation question: who should get the vaccines first? Our work suggests that it might not only be fair, but also efficient, to prioritize poorer individuals,” Weill added.

The study, “Social distancing responses to COVID-19 emergency declarations strongly differentiated by income“, was authored by Joakim A. Weill, Matthieu Stigler, Olivier Deschenes, and Michael R. Springborn.

(Photo credit: Ronnie Pitman)

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