The COVID-19 public health and economic crises leave vulnerable populations exposed

Source: Jevay Grooms, Alberto Ortega, and Joaquin Alfredo-Angel Rubalcaba, Brookings Institution, August 13, 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created a new reality worldwide. In the United States it has exposed the fragility of some of the most marginalized groups, particularly the millions of Americans we rely on for some of our most basic necessities. The pandemic has arguably buttressed the racial and ethnic inequities that persist in our society. Black and Hispanic households face additional social and economic disparities which are deeply rooted in structural discrimination and systemic racism—both of which have tremendous implications for health and well-being.

We use a novel panel data set collected between March and July of 2020 to describe disparities in outcomes related to the COVID-19 pandemic across race/ethnicity and employment status. Essential workers are a new class of employee defined as those who work in industries that are considered essential for a society’s survival, including (among others) health care, food service, and public transportation. We find that unemployed and essential workers are the most vulnerable given their lower income, lack of health insurance, and differences across household structure. When evaluated across race/ethnicity, the results suggest that some of these disparities are intensified among Black and Hispanic Americans.

This timely evidence suggests a need for a more robust safety net, such as an expanded unemployment benefits program and more-accessible public health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as more-deliberate targeting of federal support to Black and Hispanic households.