Money can’t buy everything, but it makes it more likely you’ll protect yourself from Covid-19 infection, a new study from Johns Hopkins University researchers shows. 

The study found that people with higher incomes were more likely to make larger changes to protect themselves from Covid-19 than people with lower incomes.

Overall, 88% of respondents reported taking precautionary measures against Covid-19 infection, such as hand washing, masking, and social distancing. Though most respondents did not change their behaviors much over time, higher-income people were most likely to increase their self-protective behaviors. 

Respondents in the highest-income group—people earning an average of about $230,000 per year—were 32% more likely to increase social distancing and 30% more likely to increase hand washing and mask wearing than people in the lowest-income group, who earned, on average, just under $14,000 per year. 

The results suggest that behavioral differences are not based on different beliefs or attitudes, but on people’s ability to make the changes necessary to protect themselves. 

Overall, 97% of respondents in the highest- and lowest-income groups believed social distancing is effective. However, only 45% of people in the lowest-income group had increased their social distancing compared with 57% of people in the highest-income group.

Employment flexibility was a major factor in whether respondents increased their social distancing. People who could work from home were 24% more likely to socially distance than people who continued to work in person. More than 50% of the highest-income respondents had transitioned to working from home during the pandemic, compared to just 10% of people in the lowest-income group. Nearly 40% of low-income respondents reported not being able to work from home. 

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president of New Jersey-based One-Stop College Counseling, moved her business online at the start of the pandemic like many college counseling professionals she knows. 

“The virus is scary,” Weingarten said. “I feel like it’s a game of Russian Roulette.” 

Weingarten doesn’t take any chances. 

“I basically haven’t left my home since March,” Weingarten said. She gets groceries delivered and doesn’t socialize except over Zoom. “I definitely feel lucky that I am in [a] field that could go on, because otherwise I would’ve been out of work for ten months, which is not really sustainable.” 

Weingarten questions whether commitment to social distancing is driven by income or education, a hypothesis the study did not address because the survey did not include information about respondents’ education.

“I would think the more people educate themselves on the virus, the more wary they’ll be,” Weingarten said, though she knows educated people who do not feel the virus is a major threat and are not changing their behaviors. 

Tyler Read, a California native who runs an online personal training business, recognizes that working remotely is something of a luxury. Because of how much easier it is for him to socially distance than for many others, he feels a responsibility to take precautions. 

“Because I can so easily stay home without any economic consequences, I do,” Read said. “I’m not only protecting myself and the people I live with, but I’m also helping protect my entire community by being one less person potentially contributing to the spread of this virus.” 

Even if lower-income respondents were able to work from home, being home may offer little opportunity for social distancing.

Lower-income respondents were less likely to report having outdoor access at home.  The study found that people with access to open air at home were 20% more likely to socially distance than those without outdoor access.

“If you are able to afford a six-foot radius around you, that already implies a certain amount of wealth,” said architect Jovi Cruces.

“It’s not shocking that if you don’t live in a comfortable house you’re going to be leaving your house more often,” said Nicholas Papageorge, Broadus Mitchell Associate Professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins University and the study’s lead author. 

The implications for policy makers, according to Papageorge, is to recognize the practical challenges of social distancing guidelines and to design policies that make it easier for lower-income people to take appropriate precautions, such as opening public parks or creating incentives for employers to allow remote work. Otherwise, low-income people are forced to choose between their health and safety and their income.

“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 said. “But what about the people who aren’t teleworking? What are they going to do?”

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