Four ways inequality has widened during the pandemic : The Indicator from Planet Money The coronavirus has devastated the U.S. economy, but it hasn't affected everyone equally. Today on the show, four ways the pandemic has deepened inequality.
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Inequities Of The Pandemic

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Inequities Of The Pandemic

Inequities Of The Pandemic

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Now, if you're not me and if you're not Stacey, then you probably don't sit around waiting for the release of economic...

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

(Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Surveys by the Federal Reserve - maybe.

VANEK SMITH: You make us sound so weird, Cardiff. I mean, I feel like there's certain things that are better unsaid. Like...

GARCIA: Right.

VANEK SMITH: ...Leave - we need to leave some mystery for people.

GARCIA: Too late for that (laughter). But we can't blame you if you did not see the latest survey of consumer finances from the Fed when it came out last month.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, this survey only comes out every three years, and it is one of the best snapshots we have of how much money people make across the U.S. And the latest version of the survey uses the data that was collected last year, which means it is like a snapshot of, you know, the before times, what the economy looked like just before the pandemic.

GARCIA: And what the survey shows might surprise you. After years and, actually, after decades of the U.S. economy becoming more unequal, it actually became slightly, just slightly, more equal between the years 2016 and 2019. The incomes of middle-class households were actually rising a little bit faster than the incomes of really rich households in those three years.

VANEK SMITH: And then came the pandemic. And one of the really noticeable effects of the pandemic economy has been that it has made the country more unequal again, not just more unequal between people with high incomes and people who don't have high incomes, but also between men and women, between people with college degrees and people without them and between families of color and white families.

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GARCIA: Yeah, and here on THE INDICATOR, we have told a number of individual stories about these trends throughout the months of the pandemic. But there is now just a lot more data available than there was in the pandemic's earliest phases. So we can just provide a new snapshot of where we are. And so that's what we're going to do on today's show. We're going to go through four of these inequities, one by one. And that is coming up right after a quick break.

OK, here we go - four inequities of the COVID pandemic. First up, growing racial and ethnic inequality. According to a recent survey by Pew Research, throughout the pandemic, Black and Hispanic families have struggled to make payments on their bills - things like health care bills or mortgage payments - more than white families.

VANEK SMITH: One clear reason why is that Black and Hispanic adults have been more likely to lose their jobs than white adults. But another big reason is that white households had so much more wealth before the pandemic.

GARCIA: Here are some staggering data points. As of last year, the median Black household had about $24,000 in total wealth, and the median Hispanic household had just a bit more, about $36,000. But the median white household had $189,000 in wealth. That's just a huge gap.

VANEK SMITH: Also, white families are more likely to own shares in the stock market and to own their homes. And since both the stock market and home prices are actually higher now than they were before the pandemic, wealth inequality has almost certainly gotten even wider. And this also means that white families just had more of an economic cushion going into the pandemic. They had more savings and more stuff they could sell to help them get by when the economy started to go bad.

GARCIA: The second inequity exacerbated by the pandemic is a pretty straightforward one. People who make lower wages have been much more likely to lose their jobs because of the pandemic than people who get paid higher wages.

VANEK SMITH: A big reason for this - industries that pay low average wages, which include jobs in restaurants and bars and retail stores, have themselves been more likely to have shutdowns or lose business than industries that pay higher wages - like finance or law. In fact, people who work in these low-wage industries are roughly three times more likely to have lost a job since February and to still be out of work than people who work in high-wage industries.

GARCIA: And that trend also overlaps with the third inequity, which is about the labor market for people with different educational backgrounds. For adults with college degrees, their total number of jobs is almost back to exactly where it was before the pandemic even started. But there are still 12% fewer jobs for people with only high school degrees and 18% fewer jobs for people who did not graduate high school.

VANEK SMITH: And there was another really incredible statistic that gets at the difference between people who have college degrees and people who don't, and that is this. It is the ability to work remotely, away from the office. So 67% of college graduates who have jobs can do those jobs from home. For high school graduates, only 25% can work from home, which makes it hard for them to keep their jobs at a time of social distancing and business lockdowns.

GARCIA: And the fourth inequity is widening gender inequality. There's more than 2.5 million fewer women in the U.S. labor force than there were before the pandemic. And being out of the labor force, by the way, means that you don't have a job and also that you're not looking for a job, possibly because you have other responsibilities, like tending to a sick relative or watching the kids. And women have been dropping out of the labor force in much higher numbers than men since the pandemic started.

VANEK SMITH: So one explanation for these differences is that women are heavily concentrated in some of the industries that have had the highest losses - things like teaching, food service, working in hotels. Another possible explanation is the pay gap between men and women. Women earn less money on average than men do. And so in couples where both spouses work, it can end up making more economic sense for the woman to step out of the workforce if someone has to stay home and care for the children or the home.

GARCIA: Yeah, and in this pandemic, working mothers of young kids have been roughly three times more likely to lose their jobs than working fathers. By the way, we're going to have more on the topic of how women and mothers have been affected by the pandemic in a future INDICATOR episode coming next week.

VANEK SMITH: And that's it. That is our update, our snapshot of how the pandemic economy has treated different groups of people unequally. We used a lot of research and reporting by other organizations for this episode, and we will post links to that work at npr.org/money.

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GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Paddy Hirsch edits THE INDICATOR, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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