BLOOMINGTON – A recent study from Indiana University showed the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap between the so-called “haves” and “have nots.” Groups who were struggling economically before the pandemic found themselves in even more precarious positions last spring. Unfortunately, it’s not something that surprised Brea Perry, a sociologist at IU and co-author of the study.
“One of the big take-home points is that these findings provide additional evidence that when there’s some sort of crisis — whether economic, a natural disaster, human-made — these exacerbate inequalities,” she said. “They reflect the societal fault lines that were there before and tend to make them worse.”
Shortly after it became clear COVID-19 would pose a significant threat in the U.S., Perry said she started thinking about potential repercussions in the areas of social inequality and social isolation. Much of her research is focused on social networks.
Perry and Bernice Pescosolido, distinguished professor of sociology at IU and co-author, had already been involved with another project called the Person to Person Health Interview Study. This omnibus statewide survey collected various types of information to better understand health, health behaviors, outcomes and inequalities. It was conducted in person in 2019 and the early part of 2020 until it was shut down because of COVID-19.
In April and May, participants in the Person to Person Study were contacted by phone and offered about $30 to participate in a 20-minute survey focused on the effects of the pandemic. The response rate was about 70%, which is high for a phone survey, Perry said.
“Part of that is because we had already interviewed them and had somewhat of a rapport,” she said. “Everybody being home with nothing to do, needing money, all of those things contributed to a higher response rate.”
The survey found Black adults were three times as likely as whites to report food insecurity, being laid off or being unemployed during the pandemic. Additionally, residents without a college degree were twice as likely to report food insecurity (compared to those with some college), while those not completing high school are four times as likely to report it, compared to those with a bachelor’s degree.
These findings were similar to outcomes observed after the Great Recession and among those living in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina, Perry said.
“After disasters, the marginalized or underserved take much longer to recover economically, if they ever do,” she said. “That’s sad. It’s a very depressing take-home point.”
A number of factors contribute to this. The types of jobs different status groups tend to have is a big one, Perry said, noting some occupations during the pandemic were more vulnerable to layoffs and often did not lend themselves to working from home. Examples include restaurant servers and other occupations across the hospitality sector.
Sex and age also seemed to make a difference in how well survey respondents were doing economically during the pandemic, although not to the same degree as race and education.
Women generally were struggling more with food and housing insecurity than men. This could be driven by the fact that women are more likely to be single parents than men, Perry said. Young people tend to have more precarious employment than their older, more established counterparts. Perry referred to the mantra “last in, first to go” some employers adopt during hard times.
Phrases such as “food insecure” essentially mean a person has a real threat they will not have enough food. This can be measured through feelings of worry and behaviors such as skipping meals or visiting food banks. The survey used a variety of questions to assess this and other issues.
Questions were also focused specifically on economic hardships during the pandemic. This, along with previous responses from the Person to Person Study, allowed researchers to distinguish between the effects of the pandemic and those that existed prior.
What they found is a compounding effect for those who were already economically vulnerable. Individuals who didn’t have enough money to cover an emergency, such as a broken-down vehicle, before the pandemic had to borrow money to make ends meet during the pandemic, putting them in an even deeper hole.
That’s what led to the title “Pandemic precarity: COVID-19 is exposing and exacerbating inequalities in the American heartland.” The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Perry said there are plans for two follow-up studies. Data for one is being collected now and she hopes to collect data for another one once a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
She’s interested in the long-term effects of the pandemic on health. The human body can weather acute stress pretty well, but the chronic stress that can result from ongoing economic insecurity has a deleterious effect.
Perry is also interested in how people used the informal safety nets of social networks to get through the economic hardships of the pandemic. So far there is evidence of heightened levels of both giving and receiving support. The types of support range from emotional to monetary donations to financial advice.
“It’s one heartwarming finding in otherwise mostly bleak findings,” she said.
Michael Reschke, of the Herald Times, wrote this article, which was made available through the Hoosier State Press Association.