Three years since the first lockdown, social scientists have had the time to gain more perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the socioeconomic landscape of America along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. A recent special issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences was devoted to this topic, including articles detailing the impact of the pandemic on issues ranging from criminal justice, to unemployment benefits, to remote schooling and mothers’ employment. Daniel Schneider, the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and co-director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy’s Shift Project, co-edited the issue with University of California, Berkeley, economist Steven Raphael. We asked Schneider what the latest scholarship tells us about the impacts of the pandemic, and what we have learned from this unique period.

 

Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic reshape the landscape of socioeconomic inequality in America?

In the United States, the pandemic resulted in extraordinary excess mortality and morbidity as well as in an unprecedented decline in employment and periodic lockdowns of economic activity in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the non-pharmaceutical interventions deployed to counter the threat also had dramatic consequences for the economic wellbeing and health of American households.

The rise of remote work led to increased flexibility, but also to gender inequality and wider gaps in job quality. Remote learning led to reductions in the employment of mothers, especially among less educated parents. And at the same time that large swaths of the professional class transitioned to remote work, front-line workers like the police, health care employees, grocery, pharmacy and delivery workers continued to go in to work. And millions of other Americans were thrown into unemployment.

Both the disease itself and the economic fallout re-inscribed racial inequalities, falling most heavily on Hispanics and Blacks. The shocks to unemployment were most severe for Black and Hispanic workers and remote school operating procedures had the largest effects on reducing black mothers’ employment.

Although the safety net and stimulus response to the pandemic was broad-based, undocumented Hispanic immigrants were excluded from these supports and even some Hispanic immigrants with lawful immigration status struggled to access many of these benefits, as did Hispanic mothers who at times struggled to navigate the safety net. Moreover, the research in this collection demonstrates how access to the unemployment insurance system (one of the principal avenues of support, especially during the first phase of the pandemic) seemed to correlate with access to technology, information, and geographically concentrated affluence. Despite broad-based reductions in poverty as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure (SPM) and even though food insecurity declined overall as a result of the enormously successful government response, Black and Hispanic families experienced increases in food hardship over the first year of the pandemic. As we learned from both New York and California, criminal justice systems scrambled to address the logistic challenges created by the pandemic as well as the consequences for those most likely to be involved with these systems.

Some aspects of the COVID-19 response, however, also appear to have effectively reduced racial inequality: Pandemic era supports, eviction moratoria, and emergency rental assistance significantly reduced evictions in large cities, with the largest effects in majority-Black neighborhoods, with the result that racial inequalities in eviction were narrowed, even if by no means eliminated.

Daniel Schneider.

“The COVID-19 pandemic appears to mark an inflection point in both workers’ tolerance for precarious working conditions and their ability to exercise power to demand better jobs.”

Daniel Schneider

 

Q: What are some of the longer-term effects of this that we can still see today and may continue to impact our future?

School closures and the widespread and long-term use of remote learning during COVID-19 now appears to have had durable negative consequences for student learning. Students lost an incredible amount of ground over the early years of the pandemic and researchers have shown the sobering magnitude of this learning loss.

The pandemic has likely sped up the transition to greater remote work, especially for workers with more education. The implications of this development for housing markets, internal migration, residential choice, and the nature and health of some of the country’s largest cities are potentially profound. 

 

Q: Were there any surprises or counterintuitive findings?

One really surprising and, so far, durable consequence of the COVID-19 crisis has been that the initial historic shocks to unemployment were followed by a really tight labor market.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to mark an inflection point in both workers’ tolerance for precarious working conditions and their ability to exercise power to demand better jobs. Support for unions is rising and we have seen successful campaigns at firms like Amazon and Starbucks. While the fundamental precarity of many service-sector jobs in the United States can seem impossibly durable, this is also a moment of real change and possibility.

 

Q: Any success stories or reasons to be hopeful?

The economic shocks of COVID-19 were met with an unprecedented governmental response, which included large stimulus payments, expanded unemployment insurance (UI), increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and reductions in administrative burdens, eviction moratoriums, and advance child tax credit payments.

The papers in the volume, on SNAP, on UI, on rental assistance, and on eviction moratorium show clearly that these programs were incredibly effective in reducing household hardship and poverty.

However, it is also important to recognize that the response did not reach all Americans. These efforts collided with incredible political polarization, a racial reckoning, and deep anti-immigrant rhetoric.

But, for those families that this support reached, the effects were, at least temporarily, transformative. These programs show that we know how to reduce poverty and hardship and these programs, such as the termination of the Child Tax Credit, were pulled back much too far.

To learn more, watch this recording of Daniel Schneider and four of the special issue’s authors discussing the socioeconomic impacts of the COVID pandemic as part of the Stone Inequality Book Talk Series.

Banner photograph by Daniel Dreifuss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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