November 5, 2020

America’s existing wealth gap alone can’t explain staggering disparities due to COVID-19

Despite trillions being distributed in aid, the pandemic has disproportionately wreaked havoc on the financial health of households of color.

Black and Latino communities are not only seeing higher death rates from COVID-19, they are also facing serious problems affording basic necessities like housing, food, and health care. Photo by Joel Muniz via Unsplash

America’s racial wealth gap is enduring and pronounced. It’s present in nearly every aspect of a family’s financial life, from income and wages to assets and savings.

In the best of times, the gap is significant, but slowly shrinking, as observed in the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances. In times of emergency, such as one brought on by a global pandemic, the racial wealth gap represents a severe risk for families whose finances are already fragile.

We have yet to witness the pandemic’s comprehensive toll on American households, but recent data reveals just how deeply COVID-19 has impacted the financial health of Black, Latino, and Native American households.

A survey from NPR, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted in July and August found that the majority of Latino (72 percent) and Black (60 percent) households are facing serious financial problems since the onset of the pandemic, compared to just over a third of white families (36 percent).

Additionally, Latino (32 percent) and Black (28 percent) households were nearly twice as likely to have faced serious problems paying their mortgage or rent; and Latino (25 percent) households faced the most significant problems affording medical care.

These disparities are surprisingly deep, given that during this period trillions of dollars were being dispersed through aid packages aimed at preventing job loss and bolstering benefits for those who lost theirs.

“The numbers of people in serious financial trouble in a world where the country announced we had all these aid programs is staggering,” said Robert Blendon, a health policy researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who oversaw the poll.

Communities of color also are facing the highest hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19. According to The COVID Tracking Project, Black people are dying at 2.2 times the rate of white people. In looking at deaths per 100,000 people, Black (107), Latino (71), and Native American (71) people are suffering disproportionately compared to white people (48).

Without serious intervention, the pandemic will exacerbate the racial divide and decimate communities where the need is greatest.

“When you look at natural disasters, when [governments] give aid, they focus on the district with the biggest problem. So if you have floods in the Gulf, you give more money in the areas where the flooding was more serious,” Blendon said, comparing the pandemic to a disaster scenario. “You expect that there would be some safety net, some life preserver for people in very high case areas to help them through this financially. We were taken aback—not that there are disparities, but the level of problems were just shocking.”

[Read more: Organizations gave billions—but only a small portion went to the most vulnerable populations]

This week, voters will decide who will lead the nation through the coronavirus crisis. With cases surging—there’s been over half a million in the last week alone—and Congress at a standstill on the next round of stimulus, whoever wins will need to prioritize addressing these significant disparities.