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Self-protective behaviours such as social distancing increased between 16% and 54% among the top fifth of earners

Social distancing over 50% more likely among highest earners, study finds

The highest earners in the US are much more likely to engage in social distancing, mask wearing, hand-washing and other protective measures against COVID-19, a new study has found.

In a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Population Economics, researchers including from the University of Exeter Business School examined survey data from 1,000 US citizens in California, Florida, New York and Texas to measure how socio-economic differences can explain human behaviour during the pandemic.

They found that the top fifth of earners (with an average income of $233,895) were between 16% and 54% more likely to increase self-protective behaviours such as social distancing, hand-washing and mask wearing during the pandemic than those in the lowest income bracket (with average earnings of $13,775).

Those in the lowest income fifth reported an expected income loss of 10% due to COVID-19, where as those in the top fifth reported only a 5% loss.

Full-time employment and the shift to teleworking (working from home) was found to rise with income – 75% in the highest income fifth reported they were working full-time, while around the same percentage in the lowest fifth were not working at all.

“Taken together, these figures demonstrate how the burdens of the pandemic have fallen especially hard on those with lower incomes,” said co-author Professor Julian Jamison, Professor of Economics at the University of Exeter Business School.

“These are the people who have lost relatively more income and employment, which may make it harder for them to engage in social distancing and other self-protective behaviours. This in turns implies that they are more likely to get sick, which reinforces the negative impacts on their financial circumstances.”

The survey data was collected in April 2020 and details a range of socio-economic factors including income, pre-existing health conditions, job losses, working arrangements and housing quality, as well as demographic variables such as race and gender.

The respondents were asked whether they thought social distancing was effective, what they thought would happen if they became infected and how they had changed their behaviour in response to COVID-19 – with an emphasis on social distancing, hand-washing and mask wearing.

Men were 23% less likely than women to adopt social distancing, which the authors say is evidence that the pandemic could be driving women into “traditional” care roles in the home while men still go out to work, where social distancing is more difficult.

The data also shows that people in Florida and Texas were around 20% less likely to adopt social distancing than those from California and New York.

The authors believe this supports research that has established a relationship between political affiliation and social distancing, and point out that both states are led by governors who were less responsive to the outbreak.

Professor Jamison said: “Effective and sustainable pandemic policy should be based not on what policymakers wish individuals would do, but what they expect them to do.

“To the extent that socioeconomic status helps to predict behaviour, it should play a role in the development of policy, and as specific and policy-relevant socio-economic factors help to explain income differences, they could also shed light on new avenues to mitigate the harm of a pandemic.”

The study, Socio-demographic factors associated with self-protecting behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic, is published in the Journal of Population Economics.

Date: 1 February 2021

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