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"Your Income Predicts How Well You Can Socially Distance" - Erin Cole | December 2020

Introduction to Sociology Instructor
Bucks County Community College

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When the pandemic hit in early spring and much of the country shut down, many businesses sent their employees home to work virtually. Many employers found out that much of what could be done in the office could also be achieved while employees worked from home and attended meetings through Zoom. But not all employees stayed home.

A recent mobility study using cell phone location data found that individuals in low-income neighborhoods were not staying at home as often when compared to individuals in higher-income neighborhoods. “The study found that 25 percent more high earners stayed completely at home during the pandemic compared to the number of them who had stayed home before” (Simon 2020). There was a 10% increase among low earners during the same time period.

When pairing the cellphone location data with census data showing median income level, researchers also found that the poor traveled longer distances and did not decrease visits to recreational areas at the same rate as wealthier Americans. Although the study did not come to a definitive conclusion as to why a discrepancy exists, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 54% of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher were home working remotely.

Although a virus shouldn’t be able to discriminate based on social class, race, or ethnicity, the data shows us that this is often the case as almost half of these low-income essential workers are minorities. While workers with higher degrees and higher incomes were home working remotely, they were able to stock up on groceries and essentials and have them delivered. They could shop on Amazon and receive mail-order prescriptions. Meanwhile, many low-income essential workers are employed at these retail, warehouse, or delivery jobs. While they are stocking shelves, preparing packages, and making deliveries, they may be exposing themselves to the virus at a higher level of risk when compared to higher-income individuals.

In addition to not being able to work from home, many of the jobs low-income essential workers have do not offer health insurance—further placing these workers at a higher risk of severe illness or death. When a vaccine is ultimately available, will low-income essential workers be at the front of the line to receive it, and will they be able to afford it?

Questions for Discussion

  1. What does Max Weber’s concept of life chances tell us about our risk of exposure during a pandemic?
  2. How much of the disparity between being able to work from home or not is rooted in systemic racism and institutional discrimination?
  3. Do you think low-income essential workers should be prioritized when a vaccine becomes available? Should they be immunized before politicians, CEOs, and professional athletes? What’s the likelihood of this happening?


Matt Simon, “Your Income Predicts How Well You Can Socially Distance,” Wired, August 5, 2020.

About the Author

Erin Cole is currently a part-time instructor at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania where she has taught since 2013. She received a Master of Arts in Applied Sociology from Montclair State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from LaSalle University. Erin has mainly taught Intro to Sociology since 2005. In addition to teaching, she serves as the Assessment Liaison and Scholarship Coordinator for the Department of Social and Behavioral Science. She is also a Digital Faculty Consultant with McGraw Hill and is certified as an online instructor by the Online Learning Consortium. Prior to her position at Bucks County Community College, she was a Licensed Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor for the Mercer County Probation Department in NJ for close to ten years. Erin enjoys cooking, reading, and spending time with her husband and two children, preferably at the Jersey Shore.

Profile Photo of Erin Cole