Household Income May Challenge Your Ability to Social Distance

A new study, published in the journal PNAS, has suggested that your socioeconomic status is correlated with your ability to social distance. The Californian researchers used anonymize mobile device data covering the United States to provide direct evidence of social distancing behaviors across income levels in different census tracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between January and April 2020, mobile device geospatial data obtained from SafeGraph, Google, and Place IQ were used to investigate median distance traveled. Then, the researchers paired the geospatial with census data showing the median income broken down by quintiles. Tracking from January through April was valuable because the study can show what took place before, in the beginning, and deep into the shutdown.

The study suggested four significant findings:

  1. There was a clear pattern of social distancing, depending on the income quintile. Individuals from the top income quintile went from the least likely group to stay home pre-shutdown to the most likely group to stay home post-shutdown. On the other hand, individuals on the bottom income quintile went from the most likely group to stay home completely pre-shutdown to the least likely group to stay home completely post-shutdown. The study showed approximately a 25 percentage point jump of the higher income quintiles staying completely at home compared with a ten percentage point increase in staying at home in the lower-income quintile.
  2. Device exposure measures how often people are going to places that are crowded via a proxy. The results showed that people in the highest income quintile had a higher device exposure to other mobile devices pre-shutdown relative to the other four income quintiles. However, post-shutdown had every income quintile drop substantially and was relatively equal between all groups.
  3. When it came to “median distance traveled,” all income quintile groups decreased their distance traveled, but different groups dropped at different rates. The middle three income quintiles traveled the most both pre- and post-shutdown. The group with the highest income quintile dropped to the lowest distance traveled group post-shutdown, even lower than the lowest income quintile group.
  4. When analyzing “retail and recreation” visits two weeks pre- and post-economic shutdown announcement, individuals in the highest income quintile immediately dropped their presence. In contrast, that trend was not as prevalent in the lower-income quintiles. For several weeks, people in the lowest income quintile visited stores sometimes even more during the shutdown relative to pre-shutdown.
uc_davis social distancing
A graph from the study depicts the percentage of people staying completely at home on weekdays, by income quintile. The highest income levels are represented in yellow, and the lowest are in purple. This was measured with census-tract level income using SafeGraph mobile phone data. (J. Weill, et. al.)

The study only tells us what is taking place using mobile device data, but it does not tell us why. We could try to infer a few reasons why the results took place. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of June 2020, 73.2% of individuals who were 25 years and over with a Bachelor’s degree worked from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Only 8.8% of individuals who were 25 years and over with a high school graduates with no college experience and 17.3% of individuals who were 25 years and over with some college or associate degree worked from home.

Essential workers like certified nursing assistants, grocers, public transportation operators, warehouse workers, and delivery workers are more likely to have an associate degree or less than a Bachelor’s degree. These workers are still vital for the infrastructure of the economy. Amazon has bragged that they created 175,000 new jobs like warehouse workers and delivery workers with the converting 125,000 of those jobs to regular, full-time employees.


Individuals in higher income quintiles are more likely to be in jobs that can be done at home, like administration, operations, and technology. If a person could work from home and stay home, they may be more likely to own an Amazon Prime membership, the world’s largest eCommerce website. In the United States, 82% of households that made more than $112,000 possessed an Amazon Prime membership compared to households that made between $21,000 and $41,000 with 52% as of 2017. During the COVID-19 shutdowns in Q2, Amazon doubled its net profit year over year from $2.6 billion in 2019 to $5.2 billion in 2020, which reflects the increased demand and expansion of Amazon during the pandemic.

Individuals in the highest income quintile may be able to buy in bulk from home in preparation for the shutdown using their increased disposable income, relative to those in the lower-income quintiles who worked as an essential worker during that time. People who were laid off relied on supplemental funding like the $600 unemployment fund to pay for life essentials, or they traveled to food banks. Both processes increase the rate of leaving home. Approximately 20% of Americans living with children reported that they could not afford to sufficiently feed their families, according to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities. Nearly 26 million adults are food insecure due to lack of funds.

Post-shutdown, each of the income quintiles have similar device exposure; however, there are several possibilities as to why each income quintile had reduced device exposure. People of a higher income quintile can stay home with their family members who have not left out to work. Those in the lower income quintile may practice social distancing to get to work and the grocery & retail stores; however, they may have to touch more public objects than those who stay home entirely, which puts them at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.


Not all essential workers get health insurance, and millions of the unemployed had lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. As of July 2020, 5.4 million Americans lost their health insurance. Usually, newly laid off and uninsured people will have three ways to get coverage: COBRA, the Affordable Care Act subsidized marketplace, or a public plan like Medicaid or Medicare. However, not everyone qualifies for health insurance. For example, newly laid-off employees will need to sign up for COBRA within 60 days of being laid off. An information gap between those who sign up and those who do not may be the determining factor. Also, those medical coverages can still be expensive for a family relying on $600 or less per week.

Lack of health insurance affects different demographics at a different rate. The COVID-19 mortality rate for African Americans is 3.7 times higher than the rate for White Americans, due in large part to healthcare access disparities. Hispanics are 2.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White Americans. Also, racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to have access to a vehicle than White Americans, which could decrease the probability of them going to a doctor unless it is an emergency. With the scare of public transportation and population density, along with people working from and government shutdowns, there is a decline of ridership. Since 2016, ridesharing companies like Uber Health and Lyft have teamed up with hospitals and medical centers to give people in the lower-income quintile access to transportation. However, these companies saw a plummet in Q2 earnings due to low ridership.

Solutions to social distancing for people in the middle to lower-income quintiles are harder than imagined. Not everyone can work from home until the pandemic is over. Those with economic means are more capable of practicing social distancing and addressing medical care when needed. Those who need social distance the most because they do not have health insurance are the ones who cannot because they are more likely to attend food banks or venture out to obtain essential supplies that they can afford week-to-week.

“As policymakers are thinking about emergency relief packages, this points to the need for lower-income regions to be an area of focus in order to build capacity for social distancing and other measures critical to reduce the spread of this disease,” said senior author Michael Springborn, an environmental economist and associate professor with the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy. “This is just one piece of a broader set of emerging results showing that lower-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable as the pandemic proceeds.”


Joakim A. Weill, Matthieu Stigler, Olivier Deschenes, Michael R. Springborn. Social distancing responses to COVID-19 emergency declarations strongly differentiated by income. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020; 202009412 DOI: 1073/pnas.2009412117

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