Coronavirus and Crisis Has a Disproportionate Impact on the Poor

March 24, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Amelia Seder

In a time of crisis like the Coronavirus outbreak, a reverberating message from political leaders around the globe reminds us that “we are all in this together.”[1] However, the impact of a global pandemic disproportionately impacts hourly workers and individuals living below the poverty line.[2] While political leaders tout national and global unity, the economic inequality in the U.S. becomes more apparent than ever during such a national emergency. Consider the advice that experts, as well as the government, gave to the public on how to contain coronavirus spread: work remotely, stock up on pantry items, avoid public transportation, and seek medical treatment when symptoms arise.[3] Mandatory school closures and the shutting down of restaurants and all non-essential businesses are necessary precautions; however, such measures disproportionately impact poor Americans. For instance, ninety-three percent of the highest wage earners have paid sick leave whereas only thirty percent of the lowest wage earners can earn paid sick days.[4] While Coronavirus jeopardizes the safety of all Americans, it is the poor that feel the burden most acutely.

For low-income Americans – hourly workers, grocery store clerks, nannies, cooks, waiters and waitresses – working remotely is not an option.[5] A vast majority of low-income jobs do not provide for paid sick days.[6] For wealthier Americans, working from home might seem like a welcomed respite. Yet, for those living paycheck to paycheck, a national quarantine presents an impossible hurdle. Because low-income Americans are more likely uninsured for medical care, a trip to the doctor places an undue financial burden on these individuals.[7] In a 2019 Federal Reserve study, forty percent of Americans reported that they did not have four hundred dollars available to cover extra expenses in an emergency situation.[8] Stocking up on pantry items is not a feasible option for these households. Further, as public-school closures force education online, poor families with inadequate access to high speed internet face an uncertain future for their children’s education.[9]

The Coronavirus will pose drastic consequences to the homeless and prison population. The virus spreads most in contained environments.[10] In the prison context, quarantine is impossible.[11] Inmates share rooms, bathrooms, recreational spaces, and eating areas.[12] Prison guards, who could be carriers of the virus, remain in constant contact with inmates.[13] Most prisons ban hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content.[14] The air circulation in prisons is notoriously bad as windows are rarely allowed open.[15] Inmates must purchase soap from the commissary and it is only available if an inmate can afford to pay for it.[16] Further, the prison population is often a high risk community for medical illnesses which makes them particularly vulnerable to Coronavirus.[17] “Coronavirus in a [jail setting] will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it, and disproportionally for people of color” and lower income.[18]

The Coronavirus outbreak presents many lessons in pandemic preparedness, particularly that the U.S. government must take into account social inequities in its pandemic response. The Coronavirus has also exposed inherent structural failures in our society that need to be remedied regardless of a pandemic. For example, the fact that the prison population is disproportionately lower income individuals of color is a reality we need to change. The standard of health care in American jails needs to be higher. The usual approach to medical care in prison is to “limit[] care and limit[] what you know about people… one of the basic standards in many jails is that it’s okay to wait up to fourteen days to do a comprehensive assessment on a person who comes into jail.”[19] Not only is this the opposite approach we need in an outbreak scenario; it is inhumane to start with. The Coronavirus outbreak highlights economic inequities in society that need to be addressed in the event of an epidemic, as well as without one.



[1] See Coronavirus: ‘We’re all in this together’ says FM, BBC News (Mar. 16, 2020),; Donald J. Trump, Remarks by President Trump in Address to the Nation, The White House (Mar. 11, 2020),

[2] Abby Vesoulis, Coronavirus May Disproportionately Hurt the Poor – And That’s Bad for Everyone, Time (Mar. 11, 2020),

[3] Brett Samuels & Morgan Chalfant, Trump Says Coronavirus Crisis could go through July or August, The Hill (Mar. 16, 2020),

[4] Elise Gould, Lack of paid sick days and large numbers of uninsured increase risks of spreading the coronavirus, Economic Policy Institute (Feb. 28, 2020),

[5] Vesoulis, supra note 2.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Makena Kelly, As COVID-19 pushes classes online, some students are caught in the broadband gap, The Verge (Mar. 6, 2020),

[10] Amanda Klonsky, An Epicenter of the Pandemic will be Jails and Prisons, if Inaction Continues, N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 2020),

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Jennifer Gonnerman, How Prisons and Jails Can Respond to the Coronavirus, New Yorker (Mar. 14, 2020),