Why COVID-19 is devastating communities of color

Health, employment impacts compounded by living in areas with low opportunity

As a result of the global pandemic, unemployment claims have surged in the central Puget Sound region.

However, some groups have been hit harder than others.

Almost a quarter (23%) of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander workers in the region filed continuing unemployment claims for the second week of June, followed by 14% of Black/African American workers and 12% of American Indian/Alaska Native workers. White workers filed fewer unemployment claims than any other group in the region (8%). And although Hispanic/Latinx workers filed the second fewest claims (10%), this was likely a result of a reluctance to file.

PSRC used data from its Opportunity Index to explore why communities of color are disproportionately affected by the crisis. The Index rates census tracts in the region based on education, economic health, housing and neighborhood quality, mobility and transportation, and health and environment.

Historic practices like redlining and modern policies like exclusionary zoning have shaped the region’s landscape of opportunity. The compounding effect of these factors has concentrated marginalized populations into some of the lowest opportunity areas, which have relatively fewer resources.

Almost half of all Black and Hispanic/Latinx households live in areas of lower opportunity, while about 6 out of 10 American Indian households live in these communities.

Many of these areas have limited access to high quality schools. This lays the groundwork for pathways to the disparities highlighted above, funneling disproportionately more people of color into lower wage jobs without an option to work remotely.

National data also highlights how people of color are overrepresented in industries hit hardest by the pandemic, such as food services, retail, and transportation. These same industries were also hit hard in the central Puget Sound region, likely contributing to the racial / ethnic disparities in unemployment claims.

Additionally, people of color are more likely to have preexisting conditions leading to relatively higher rates of COVID-19 cases in these communities. These preexisting conditions are informed by their concentration in lower opportunity areas with less access to healthy foods and closer proximity to toxic sites.

As stated above, people of color are more likely to be employed in lower wage jobs, so when they get sick, they are less likely to have paid sick leave. This only further increases the likelihood they will have to file unemployment claims.

Data from the state further exemplifies the dual, disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the wallets and health of people of color (see chart below). For example, statewide, Black workers are filing unemployment insurance claims at a rate 23% higher than average and are contracting COVID-19 at a rate 50% higher than the overall population (a rate of 1.0 means that the rate in the population matches the overall rate). However, white workers are filing unemployment insurance claims at a rate 24% below the overall population and are contracting COVID-19 at half the rate of the overall population.

Historic inequities drive where people live, the economic opportunities they have, and their health outcomes.

As jurisdictions seek to ensure more of the region’s residents live in areas with higher opportunity, targeted strategies will need to be developed based on each group’s unique circumstances. Research has shown that building pathways to opportunity for more residents can improve outcomes for the entire region.