COVID-19 and Overcrowding: Communities of Color Hardest Hit

June 15, 2020

A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University has added fuel to concerns about the risk of pandemic spread in overcrowded housing. Its findings: At least 5.4 million households are at high risk of spreading COVID-19, because residents work in close contact with the public, and do not have enough space to be isolated at home. 

Key takeaways:

  1. A third of all households work in “high-proximity” jobs, but a disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic households have high-proximity workers.
  2. Younger households are more likely to include high-proximity workers, but that still puts multigenerational households at risk.
  3. A disproportionate share of Black and Hispanic workers risk spreading COVID-19 to high-risk household members, due to working in close quarters and living in overcrowded housing.

To conduct the study, Harvard’s Whitney Airgood-Obrycki  took a novel approach to measuring household risks of spreading COVID-19, and mapping racial disparities that may help account for the virus’s outsized impact on black and Hispanic communities.

Close physical proximity indoors is a major risk factor for spreading the virus, and the most effective way to contain the pandemic is to stay isolated. But that’s often easier said than done. California cities have some of the highest rates of overcrowding in the country; if residents of crowded households continue to work in close quarters with members of the public, they won’t be able to isolate themselves if they are exposed and return home with the virus. This puts elderly and immunocompromised household members at greater risk.

Airgood-Obrycki analyzed data from the U.S. Labor Department’s physical proximity index to identify jobs performed at arms’ length from consumers that typically cannot be done remotely, including healthcare workers, taxi drivers, and post office clerks. These jobs were then cross-referenced with data from the American Community Survey. 

The findings: A third of all households in the United States have at least one person working in a high-proximity job, but the incidence is not evenly distributed across the population. 40 pecent of Black households have at least one high-proximity worker, along with 45 percent of Hispanic households—11 percent more than white households.

Because households with high-proximity workers skew younger, that means more workers are at risk in renter households and households with mortgages rather than households in which the house is fully paid off.

Communities of color face a triple threat: More households with high-proximity workers, a higher likelihood of living in overcrowded conditions, and a greater incidence of multigenerational living arrangements. As the author notes: “Multigenerational households are also more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, with the triple vulnerability of having a high-contact worker, an older adult who may have care needs or provide care, and a lack of space for self-isolation.”