Opinion | Detroit survey shows coronavirus crisis threatens to widen inequality

Lydia Wileden and Jeffrey Morenoff

Lydia Wileden is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and public policy at the University of Michigan and a research associate for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study. Jeffrey Morenoff is director of the Population Studies Center, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and a research lead for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.

In the last month, Detroit has emerged as an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. While city and state officials, health care providers, and community members fight to rein in the spread and effects of the coronavirus, new survey data from the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study (DMACS) offer insights into the health concerns and economic anxiety facing Detroiters. These results highlight the disparate racial impacts of the pandemic for many Detroit residents, the consequences of which — without critical interventions — are likely to extend far beyond the public health emergency.

Data from DMACS’ rapid-response COVID-19 survey of a representative sample of Detroiters  —  gathered between March 31 and April 9 — shed light on the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on black communities. In Michigan, African Americans account for one-third of positive tests and represent nearly 40 percent of deaths, though they make up only 14 percent of the population. Despite this disparity in health impacts, we find that black Detroiters rate their risk of contracting the virus significantly lower than white residents do. Nearly one-quarter of black residents feel they are at zero risk of contracting COVID-19, while only 1 percent of white residents feel similarly unsusceptible. At the same time, black Detroiters are worried about the consequences of the pandemic: nearly 90 percent of African Americans report the pandemic is a very serious problem for them right now compared to just 64 percent of white residents. In other words, African Americans are generally less likely to think they will contract the virus but anticipate being harder hit by the pandemic’s broader impacts.

What explains this disparity in economic impact? First, consider the employment shocks that Detroiters have already experienced. Our data show 35 percent of Detroiters employed full time or part time before March 1 lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Job losses were much more prevalent among black residents (37 percent) than white residents (17 percent). Additionally, we find black Detroiters have less flexibility to work remotely or adapt to the stay-at-home order by adjusting work activities. Thus, not only are African Americans more likely to experience work disruptions, but those who continue working are less able to protect themselves from exposure while maintaining their livelihoods.

Second, consider the extreme financial precarity that many black families face. Our data show, on average, black Detroiters put the likelihood they will run out of money in the next three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic at 56 percent, compared to only 29 percent for white residents. Additionally, 26 percent of black Detroiters — including 15 percent of those who remain employed — say they are certain they will run out of money in that time, compared to only 6 percent of white Detroiters.

Third, our data reveal black residents face greater challenges in meeting their basic material needs during the pandemic. One-third of black Detroiters report being very concerned about having a place to live as a result of this crisis, while fewer than 1 in 10 white residents are concerned about their housing stability. Further, 3 in 5 black residents are concerned about being able to access food, water, other household goods, and medication, compared to only 1-in-5 white residents. This lack of access to material resources, coupled with the effects of job losses and fears for their impending financial insecurity, threatens to widen inequities in a city already struggling with entrenched racial disparities.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has taken an important first step in responding to the emerging racial disparities in COVID-19 impacts by creating the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. As that task force convenes, its members should consider the following interventions: First, we need to ensure that public information campaigns — on health risks as well as on the moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs — reach black residents and other communities of color. Our data support others’ findings that black residents place less trust than the general public in government officials and public health agencies as sources of information on the pandemic, thus such communication efforts should deputize community organizations in disseminating this critical information. Second, to lower anxieties and barriers to access for household supplies and medication, policymakers should consider deploying mobile food banks and pharmacies to neighborhoods lacking transportation and local retail opportunities. Finally, because the unbanked and those in poverty may face greater barriers in receiving their stimulus checks, the task force should devote effort to ensuring that this needed cash infusion equitably reaches communities of color.

Policymakers at all levels of government need to be attuned to the financial precarity and racial dynamics at play in the pandemic and act with that information in mind. Material needs and financial anxieties in this time of crisis are not equally shared, and without concerted efforts to address these disparities we risk long-term economic and social consequences that could affect Detroiters for generations.

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Daisy B Herndon
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 8:23am

While polling citizens, it would be interesting and maybe even useful to ask what types of responses we need from every sector and category of society, not just local, state and federal government. What can individuals do? What can church congregations do (like telephone information tree)? What can civic organizations and philanthropists do? What can and must we all do not only at this moment but to keep from returning to the same scenario that has been made evident by this pandemic.

I picture Covid-19 as the experimental vaccine against COVERT-$1, a chronic condition that has ravaged the most vulnerable segments of our body politic for years. Symptoms include the social effects of Covid-19: unemployment, fear, food insecurity, unresponsive government, inaccessible healthcare, and unnecessary deaths…as a lifestyle.

The test for COVERT-$1 is widely available, possibly in a mirror near you. (Some people will experience temporary pain.) Expect positive results if it came as a surprise that our most vulnerable people are obvious effects of the physical health pandemic.

Those with acute symptoms of COVERT-$1 will require a variety of health measures including a public awareness campaign alerting them to the contagious nature of the disease, how it is contracted and perpetuated through generations. All who are able should be encouraged and empowered to participate in proven treatment programs that are antithetical to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and similar COVERT-$1 infested projects.

Asymptomatic carriers of COVERT-$1 can help turn this thing around. Unlike COVID-19, the cure for COVERT-$1 begins with social alliancing. Regular and close association among people of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds is the base ingredient of a stimulant for the necessary new and improved normal.

As a ‘vaccine’, Covid-19 has dreadful side effects but, as we have seen these past few months, abominable viral afflictions require severe countermeasures. Hopefully this pandemic is the beginning of a new era of awakened, active and humanitarian citizenship. If it leads to a healthier nation, then those on the front lines and those who have succumbed to it have not suffered and died in vain.

Jake K.
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 10:37am

Unionized labor/OEM's do not recognize race in setting the compensation for a line worker. The same holds true for much of the service industry. If one is going to run short of money before another, I'd suggest that life style, life decisions and personal accountability could be differentiating factors.
Comparing racial testing results is like comparing the impacts of crime rates, urban versus suburban areas.
So much reporting is based upon the targeted objective. How much is 2 + 2? What do you want it to be?

Mon, 04/27/2020 - 10:49am

Your data set is incomplete, and therefore your report, inaccurate. You forgot to include the most prevalent factor in COVID-19, those who ignored the stay at home orders. I would submit, just by viewing videos people posted from the last two weeks of March, and the constant antipathy for the government overall in black communities, 100x more black people ignored the orders than any other race. While this is just a estimate based upon posted Internet videos, even if the ratio is far less, it still more than explains the explosion of cases in southeast Michigan at the end of March and beginning of April.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 04/27/2020 - 12:58pm

Interesting piece.

It's a shame that the authors choose to ignore one rather significant factor: Which political party has essentially governed Detroit for well over half a century?

When those politicians decided to enrich themselves and incessantly promoted the victimization mentality within their communities, no other outcome could rationally be expected.