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Opinion | Detroit survey shows coronavirus crisis threatens to widen inequality

Lydia Wileden and Jeffrey Morenoff

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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