Rich people more likely to socially distance, observe safety guidelines during COVID-19

BALTIMORE, Md. — There’s an old cynical saying that goes “laws don’t apply to the rich.” Apparently, however, pandemic public health and safety recommendations are an entirely different matter. According to a new study, wealthy individuals are actually more likely to diligently follow COVID-19 safety recommendations such as social distancing.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University report that the higher an individual’s income is, the more likely they were to adhere to public health and safety recommendations during the early months of the pandemic.

The adoption of behaviors such as wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance has a direct connection to one’s “financial well-being,” the study concludes. Specifically, in comparison to those earning about $13,000, people earning roughly $230,000 annually are as much as 54 percent more likely to engage in self-protective behaviors.

“We need to understand these differences because we can wring our hands, and we can blame and shame, but in a way it doesn’t matter,” says Nick Papageorge, the Broadus Mitchell Associate Professor of Economics, in a university release. “Policymakers just need to recognize who is going to socially distance, for how long, why and under what circumstances to give us accurate predictions of how the disease will spread and help us establish policies that will be useful.”

The rich have the flexibility to stay safe

Researchers surveyed a total of 1,000 Americans for this research, with respondents hailing from New York, Texas, California, and Florida. Back in April of last year, these individuals filled out a series of surveys inquiring about how their daily routines and habits had changed in response to the emerging pandemic.

Virtually all the respondents reported changing up their behaviors and habits in at least some way to protect themselves. Those earning the most money also reported making the most adjustments. The highest earners were 13 percent more likely to change their overall daily behaviors, 32 percent more likely to increase social distancing, and 30 percent more likely to wash their hands and wear a face mask.

Of course, with financial stability also comes flexibility. Study authors say that those who are financially comfortable usually have much more control over their day-to-day schedule, and thus find it much easier to adapt to safety guidelines.

High-income respondents were also more likely to be able to work from home and more likely to have switched over to a remote position instead of losing their job altogether. The ability to work from home is an important factor in all of this; researchers say working from home usually predicted a strong adherence to social distancing. Teleworkers are 24 percent more likely to social distance than those still reporting to a physical job location.

“The whole messaging of this pandemic is you’re stuck at home teleworking, that must be really tough so here are some recipes for sourdough starter, and here’s what you should catch up on Netflix,” Papageorge explains. “But what about the people who aren’t teleworking? What are they going to do?”

Low-income earners left with few options

On a similar note, low-income Americans in the study were much less likely to find a remote job and more likely to face the prospect of unemployment. This demographic was also more likely to live in a home with no access to nature or the outdoors. Researchers say this is another predictor of social distancing behavior. Those who have access to the outdoors are 20 percent more likely to social distance.

Study authors conclude that it’s been easier, more comfortable, and more practical for high-earning Americans to follow safety guidelines than lower-income brackets. They even go so far as to say that these inequalities likely contributed to prolonging the pandemic.

“It’s not shocking that if you don’t live in a comfortable house you’re going to be leaving your house more often. But the point we want to push is that if I’m a policy maker maybe I really need to think about opening city parks in a dense neighborhood during a pandemic. Maybe that’s something that’s worth the risk. This is why we want to understand these details – they can eventually suggest policies,” Papageorge notes.

The study is published in Journal of Population Economics.

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