Researchers Find Widening Disparities During COVID-19 Pandemic

A recent article by researchers at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) says the COVID-19 pandemic has widened economic, social and health disparities related to race, ethnicity, education and immigration status.

In the article, authors Leighton Ku, PhD, MPH, a professor of health policy and management, and Erin Brantley, PhD, MPH, a senior research associate, both at Milken Institute SPH, examine recent data related to employment trends, income loss, and food insecurity.

While it is widely known that unemployment skyrocketed from February to April (and then came down slightly in May) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ku and Brantley found unemployment disproportionately burdened Latino, Black and Asian communities. The disparities widened for immigrants and those with less education. In April, 21.2 percent of adults who had less than a high school education were unemployed, compared to 8.4 percent of college graduates. The researchers found 16.5 percent of immigrants were unemployed, compared to 14 percent of U.S. adults.

The reason for these disparities, the researchers write, is that minority, immigrant and less-educated individuals were more likely to be employed in service industries that shut down because of the pandemic.

The researchers also found 20.4 percent of African Americans and 15.4 percent of Latinos did not have enough food to eat in April, multiple times higher than the 6.4 of white Americans who said the same. These groups have also disproportionately been affected by COVID-19, with higher mortality rates among Latinos and African Americans.

“In addition to disparities in rates of deaths due to COVID-19, we are experiencing widening social and health inequalities,” said Ku, who is also director of the Center for Health Policy Research at Milken Institute SPH. “While it is important to consider how we can protect the overall public in these harrowing times, the nation must do more to ensure economic and social justice, which are ultimately necessary to protect health as well.”

The researchers say legislation like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act may expire while the pandemic persists and call on policy makers to take further steps to strengthen safety net programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and unemployment benefits to help those who experience hardship during the pandemic.

The article was published June 10 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Health Forum.