2020 Was Normal in One Bad Way

The biggest tragedy of 2020 and the ongoing COVID pandemic is obviously the loss of life. But, even for those lucky enough to have themselves and their families stay healthy, 2020 was a trying year. It was our introduction to pandemic life, with its isolation, social distancing, and masking. For people like myself with the privilege of continuing to work, it had its own challenges. If in February 2020 you’d given me the over/under of 1 on Zoom uses, I would have said “What’s Zoom?” Instead, I ended up saying “you’re on mute” to many, many, many confused students.

But, you know what, I got to work. The same can’t be said for everyone. In April 2020, I wrote a post pointing out that the initial unemployment effects of COVID were exaggerated for people of color. And, I also pointed out that the recovery was slower for people of color. So, a logical question is how these inequalities played out over the course of the year.

Well, luckily for us, the U.S. government just released the 2021 March Annual Socioeconomic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey. The release of this dataset is the best day of my year. Except for my wedding anniversary. (That was close.) The ASEC allows a retrospective look at households’ income and work history in the prior year. So, the 2021 ASEC covers 2020, and will allow us to see just how the pandemic affected people of color.

With Respect to Inequality, 2020 Was…Normal

Look, 2020 was, above all things, heartbreaking. But, it was also just plain weird. We can probably all remember when we realized we were in for some new experiences. Mine was when I saw someone in the grocery store with a gas mask straight out of Verdun (that’s a WWI joke). That’s when I realized my turtle neck rolled over my face might not cut it.

Anyway, given all that weirdness, you might think inequality took a weird hiatus too. Maybe all those government programs completely dulled the impact of the recession, and somehow income grew for all. And, maybe it will rain puppies. That would also be nice.

The truth is, inequality kept on keeping on, as it tends to do lately. Those government programs undoubtedly helped lower income households maintain their spending. But, they didn’t completely offset those employment effects I talked about earlier. People of color disproportionately suffered. Figure 1 shows the median change in household income between 2019 and 2020 by racial/ethnic group. Black and Hispanic people saw real declines, while white people saw the largest increase.

Figure 1. Median Change in Household Income, 2019-2020

Note: Includes households where the respondent was aged 25-54.
Source: IPUMS CPS, University of Minnesota.

The reason for this inequality in income growth has been glaringly obvious since April — these two groups saw their employment affected. This fact shows up in the ASEC’s year end numbers. Figure 2 shows that Asian, Hispanic, and Black householders who had worked in 2019 were more likely to go 2020 without any earned income, and saw declines in weeks worked while their white counterparts saw increases.

Figure 2. Percent of 2019 Workers without 2020 Earnings and Change in Weeks Worked

Note: Includes households where the respondent was aged 25-54.
Source: IPUMS CPS, University of Minnesota.

Recognizing a Pattern

Here’s the thing, despite all the talk about unprecedented times, The COVID Recession was normal in this one way. In general, the recession hit is harder and the recovery slower for workers of color. For example, the last 50 years of recessions looked exactly this way for Black workers.

And, lest you be tempted to say something like, “well, people of color just need to work harder to get back on their feet,” I’d like to remind of you something. The problem is that they actually do have to work harder than their white counterparts to get to the same place. Months ago I wrote about a study showing Black Americans have to apply to 34 jobs to have a 90 percent of getting a callback. The same number is 22 applications for white people. Think 12 interviews is no big deal? Maybe you should try doing those on Zoom.

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