The Coronavirus Crisis Is Worsening Racial Inequality

People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

In recent weeks, data have demonstrated that people of color—especially Black and Native American people—are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at far higher rates than their white counterparts. Now, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that families of color are also disproportionately experiencing the negative social, economic, and mental health effects of the coronavirus crisis.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, people of color face many disparities

This column provides fresh, racially disaggregated estimates for the percentages of U.S. households experiencing economic, housing, and food insecurity as well as health and health care problems. These analytical findings underscore the importance of a robust and equitable recovery that centers those who have suffered the most during the coronavirus pandemic and current economic recession.

Increased economic hardship

The coronavirus crisis has produced stark racial disparities in negative income shocks. Since March 13, an alarming 43 percent of white households have “experienced a loss of employment income.” However, even higher numbers of Asian American, Black, and Hispanic or Latino households have lost income—49 percent, 54 percent, and 63 percent, respectively. (see Figure 1) Households of color are also much more likely than their white counterparts to expect “a loss of employment income in the next 4 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic.” Occupational segregation and employment discrimination have long restricted workers of color to jobs with lower pay, fewer benefits, and less security than those of their white counterparts. Without action, the pandemic could deepen and prolong economic hardship in communities across the United States, especially communities of color.

Figure 1

Heightened food insecurity

Food security in communities of color is not a new problem, but the current crisis has magnified it. People of color have faced substantial barriers to accessing affordable, nutritious food for decades. For example, Black and Hispanic people are much more likely to reside in food deserts than their white counterparts, even after controlling for factors such as poverty. And racial disparities in access to food appear to have only worsened in recent weeks. According to the Census Bureau data, from May 28 to June 2, Black and Hispanic or Latino households were twice as likely as their white counterparts to report that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. (see Figure 2) Among households with children, 21 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents and 27 percent of Black respondents reported that they are currently experiencing food insecurity. Access to healthy, affordable food is a basic human right. No family should go hungry, especially during a public health crisis.

Figure 2

High rates of housing instability

Housing instability triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is a growing threat across the United States, especially in communities of color. While 9 percent of white homeowners with a mortgage missed or deferred their mortgage payment last month, a shocking 20 percent of Black homeowners did so. (see Figure 3) People of color are also twice as likely to have slight or no confidence that they will be able to make next month’s payment. Renters are in an even graver situation: 21 percent of white renters, 28 percent of Asian American renters, 45 percent of Hispanic or Latino renters, and 45 percent of Black renters have slight or no confidence that they will be able to pay next month’s rent. Racial disparities in housing instability are not the product of individual behavior but of decades of housing discrimination and economic degradation. While recent federal, state, and local efforts to establish temporary protections for homeowners and renters are admirable, the nation could experience an avalanche of foreclosures and evictions in the coming weeks and months as these protections expire. These and other second-order consequences of reduced household financial stability could slow the economic recovery and increase racial wealth inequality. Lawmakers must take immediate steps to extend protections, ensure continued assistance, and create more equitable and sustainable housing measures.

Figure 3

Unequal access to mental health care services

Millions of Americans, especially people of color, are reporting signs of emotional distress associated with depression and anxiety in the wake of the coronavirus. According to the Census Bureau data, from May 28 to June 2, 51 percent of white Americans, 62 percent of Black Americans, 59 percent of Asian Americans, and 63 percent of Hispanic or Latino Americans were bothered by “not being able to stop or control worrying.” (see Figure 4) Millions also reported “feeling down, depressed, or hopeless.” For people of color, increases in reported distress undoubtedly reflect the oppressive social conditions that many of them endure. Further, people of color face substantial barriers to mental health services, including language access, stigma, discrimination, lack of affordable high-quality health insurance, and cultural incompetence, as well as refusal to accept insurance among psychiatrists. Lawmakers must ensure that all Americans, regardless of background, have full access to the mental health services they need. Robust and equitable mental health services must be coupled with policies that guarantee access to housing, nutrition, health care, and coronavirus testing and treatment, among other things.

Figure 4

Conclusion

Data demonstrate that the coronavirus is not the “great equalizer” that some politicians and pundits have purported it to be. On the contrary, inequality has only worsened during the current national hardship. Without bold, prompt policy action, families of color will struggle to recover and be in an even more precarious position when the next crisis arises.

Connor Maxwell is a senior policy analyst for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.

Methodology

To estimate the social and economic effects of the coronavirus crisis on U.S. households, the author utilized data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s new weekly Household Pulse Survey, which “ask[s] individuals about their experiences in terms of employment status, spending patterns, food security, housing, physical and mental health, access to health care, and educational disruption.” The nationally representative data presented in this analysis were collected from May 28, 2020, to June 2, 2020. The Census Bureau did not statistically assign missing data, as it would for most survey programs. To most closely match percentages that would result from this statistical imputation, the author based calculations only on the responding cases.

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