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How Disparities in Financial Health are Contributing to Deadly Impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans

Monday, April 27, 2020

By Thea Garon, Senior Director and Andrew Dunn, Manager, Financial Health Network

Crises have a way of exposing the cracks and fissures in a society. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. As the disease moves across the country, it continues to lay bare deeply rooted disparities in financial health that leave black Americans especially vulnerable to the deadly virus.

Nearly a million Americans have already tested positive for coronavirus, but black Americans are far more likely than others to become infected with and die from the virus. Detroit, which is almost 80% black, has the highest concentration of coronavirus cases in Michigan, and the death rate in the city accounts for 40% of overall deaths in the state. In Chicago, which is 30% black, black residents account for 70% of all coronavirus cases in the city and more than half of the state’s deaths. Louisiana has the fourth largest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and the majority of the COVID-19 deaths are in New Orleans, where blacks constitute 60% of the population.

Pre-existing disparities in financial health are leaving black Americans at greater risk of contracting the virus in the first place.

While millions of people spent the last few weeks sheltering in place or working from home, black Americans are more likely to work in essential services, required to be on the front-lines of the pandemic and therefore risking greater exposure to the virus. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40% of black Americans were employed in the service sector or worked in jobs associated with production, transportation, or material moving in 2018. (Hispanic Americans were employed in these sectors at equivalent rates to black Americans, while just over a quarter of white Americans and Asian-Americans were employed in these sectors).

Given the nature of their employment, black Americans are far less likely than other workers to have the option of working from home. According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, only 20% of black workers said they are able to work from home, compared with roughly 30% of white workers and 37% of Asian-American workers (Hispanic workers are even less likely to be able to work from home, with only 16% of this group saying they had that option).

Black Americans are also more likely to live in neighborhoods far from where they work, often requiring them to use public transportation, which can put them at additional risk of exposure to the virus. According to 2019 data from the U.S. Financial Health Pulse (the Pulse), nearly half of black respondents (47%) say their neighborhoods have poor access to jobs and employment opportunities, compared with 38% of white respondents. Indeed, data from New York City shows that subway ridership has plummeted in neighborhoods in Manhattan, while it’s decreased far less in neighborhoods in the outer boroughs where more black and Hispanic residents live.

Inadequate access to affordable insurance and high-quality healthcare is putting black Americans at higher risk of dying from the virus once they have it.

Underlying health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, greatly increase the likelihood that the COVID-19 will prove fatal. Decades of discriminatory healthcare policies and the persistently high costs of health insurance have resulted in worse health outcomes for black Americans. According to data from the Pulse, 16% of black respondents lacked health insurance in 2019, compared with just 10% of white respondents. A lack of health insurance is associated with lower rates of preventive screening, which has been shown to increase the risk of severe health complications down the road.

Preliminary studies also document a link between exposure to air pollution and heightened risk of mortality because of COVID-19, suggesting that people who live in neighborhoods with worse environmental standards are more likely to succumb to the disease than those who have not been exposed to air pollution. According to 2019 data from the Pulse, black respondents are far more likely to live in neighborhoods with lower environmental standards. Nearly 31% of black respondents negatively rated their neighborhoods’ air and water quality, compared with 20% of white respondents (Hispanic respondents were even more likely than black Americans to say their neighborhoods lacked access to clean and air water, with 37% of them rating this aspect of their neighborhoods poorly.)

In addition to bearing the brunt of the health impact of COVID-19, black Americans are more likely to feel the negative impact of the economic crisis.

The pandemic is upending the financial lives of millions of people, but it is having particularly profound consequences on the financial lives of black Americans. According to a nationally representative survey fielded in March by the University of Southern California, on average, black respondents thought there was a 14% chance they would lose their jobs in the next three months because of the COVID-19 outbreak. (White respondents reported a 10% chance, and Hispanic respondents reported a 20% chance.) Black respondents also reported an average likelihood that they would run out of money in the next three months that was 10 percentage points higher than white respondents (but 4 percentage points lower than Hispanic respondents).

Likely due to these concerns, black Americans are more anxious about the COVID-19 outbreak than others: 70% of black respondents reported feeling anxious in the last two weeks, compared with 54% of white respondents and 51% of Hispanic respondents. Black respondents are also far more likely to say they have not been able to stop or control their worrying (73%, compared with 69% of white respondents and 66% of Hispanic respondents), and to say they were feeling down, depressed, or hopeless (77%, compared with 70% percent of white respondents and 70% of Hispanic respondents).

The unfolding health and economic crises are creating unique opportunities for stakeholders to develop policies that address deeply rooted financial health inequities for black Americans and other financially vulnerable populations.

Governments, financial services providers, and employers must start by disaggregating their household, customer, and employee data to ensure that immediate hardship relief efforts and ongoing financial health solutions are reaching those who need them the most. These institutions must then invest in inclusive policies, solutions, and benefits that can help all households weather the current storm and regain firm financial footing in the future, targeting communities where disparities are the greatest.


Visit our COVID-19 Resource Hub for the latest research, advice, and insights on the impact of the pandemic. We also invite you to reach out to the Pulse team to learn more about our data assets and how they can help you better understand the communities you serve.

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