Spotlight Exclusives

Report: COVID death rate soared in low-income counties

Shailly Barnes, Policy Director for the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign Shailly Barnes, Policy Director for the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, posted on

It’s long been clear that low-income communities have suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recently released report, the Poor People’s Campaign puts numbers and faces on that abstraction with a look at how the pandemic impacted counties across the nation, particularly the 300 with high COVID death rates as well as high percentages of poverty. Spotlight spoke with Shailly Barnes, Policy Director for the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, about the report, which was a partnership between the Poor People’s Campaign, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Kairos Center, Repairers of the Breach, and Howard University. The transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about the background of the report—how did this come about?

The Poor People’s Pandemic Report was a joint project of the Poor People’s Campaign and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is a global network of scholars, economists, and researchers. It grew out of the assessment of the campaign, what we’ve been seeing across the country in terms of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health impacts, and the economic and social impacts on poor and low-income communities. We’re organized across more than 40 states and were hearing stories about families losing 10 to 15 people at a time or organizing multiple funerals a week. It made us see how hard COVID-19 was hitting poor and low-income communities. And yet, information on poverty and income, in terms of its relationship to pandemic outcomes, has not been tracked or disseminated at a national scale.

This is why  Rev. (William J.) Barber (II), our national co-chair, approached the economist Jeffrey Sachs to see if we could work together on an initial interrogation and analysis of these intersections of poverty, race, and the pandemic. Over a series of months, we worked with a team of researchers and analysts to pull together the data, analysis and findings of the report.

And what were some of the top-level findings?

Overall, it confirmed what we already knew, which was that during the course of the pandemic, poorer counties have experienced twice the COVID death rate as higher-income or richer counties. In fact, after the first phase of the pandemic, the discrepancy in death rates increases. During the deadliest phases—which, so far have been the winter surge of 2020 and then the Omicron surge last year—the death rates were four-and-a-half and three times higher, respectively, in poor counties. And then during the Delta phase, the death rate was five times higher.

And how are you defining poorer counties?

 Because both the official poverty measure, and then what’s called the supplemental poverty measure, are too low. We also know that, over the course of a year, there is a lot of movement above and below those thresholds. This is why the Poor People’s Campaign has always defined poverty to include everyone living below the poverty measure thresholds and everyone living one emergency above those thresholds, up to 200% of those measures. In 2018, the threshold for a single person was about $14,000 and $25,000 for a family of four. When we go up to 200% of that threshold, we include single person households with incomes up to $28,000 and four-person households with incomes up to approximately. $50,000. That’s how we established in 2018 that there were 140 million poor and low -income people in the country. Those thresholds have increased some, but not substantially.

In this report, we used the official poverty measure it offers comprehensive county level data and we go up to 200% of that threshold. I think today, that’s approximately $54,000 for a family of four.

Is there any sense in the data or in an anecdotal way of how helpful the government response to the pandemic was in these counties, and how they’re dealing with the winding down of that response?

 Poor and low-income communities had fewer reserves to draw on and were often on the front lines in terms of essential work that was, especially in low-wage sectors, still unprotected from the harms of the pandemic. In one of the case studies, a Bronx resident describes that, alongside crowded housing and high poverty rates, another reason why the COVID-19 death rates were so high is that so many of the workers in the Bronx were frontline essential workers who could not stay at home.

Our report did not hit on this directly, but other research, such as the work from the Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that nearly 4 million children have fallen below the poverty line since these pandemic-era programs have expired. Unlike some other anti-poverty programs, the expanded Child Tax Credit also reduced the racial discrepancies of who was poor. The children who benefited most from that program were Black, Latino, and Native American children. These are also the children who are harmed most when it ended. We’re continuing to pay close attention to this and learn from our broader network of partners about how long and deep the impact from that is going to be.

And is the coalition calling for any specific response to this?

The Poor People’s Campaign’s agenda has called for expanded welfare programs, an expanded earned income tax credit, adequate and decent housing for folks, quality, diverse public education for our children and the expansion of Medicaid for years. We’ve been calling for access to water and utilities far before the pandemic highlighted how broad of a crisis water affordability actually was. And since the pandemic revealed the extent to which even small increases in these programs can have dramatic effects, the lesson we have to learn is that there are programs that can lift the load of poverty, that can provide healthcare for more people, that can make sure we do not go hungry. And we, as a nation, need more of those. To do that, we have to center and prioritize those were hurting before the pandemic and those who were hurting most going through it, so we can come out stronger in the months ahead.

I want to be sure to mention that this study is searchable for local areas, so explain a bit what people can look for when they go to the website.

There are three different components that I would draw your readers towards. One is the Story Map itself, which walks through the methodology and findings with graphs, charts and maps and tells the story of what happened at this intersection of poverty, race, and COVID-19.

The second piece is this interactive dashboard where we’ve compiled county level information on COVID-19 death rates alongside poverty, median income, racial demographics, but also the percentage of a county that’s paying too much in rent, the percentage of the county that’s uninsured, and even the number of police killings, where that information is available. You can enter your state, enter your county, and look at this level of information and then how it compares to other similar places. It’s color coded in a way that we hope is user friendly and, so people can explore this information on your own, and we hope it serves as a basis for further research and inquiry about these intersections.

The third component are the case studies that pull out just a little bit more county-level information and puts it in context.

I know all the case studies are compelling, but I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about Hinds County, Mississippi, which happens to be a place Spotlight is doing a lot of work in.

What was compelling about looking at all of these different counties was how much of the ravages of the pandemic were shaped by preexisting conditions—not of individuals, but of health infrastructure, economic infrastructure, that kind of thing. In Hinds County, we got to know Olivia Womack, who’s a college student and whose family lost nearly two dozen family members over the course of the pandemic. Her father Fred talked about having to go to multiple funerals a week, multiple funerals a day. This immediate trauma of COVID-19 was, in fact, layered on top of months, years, generations of trauma, for instance the non-expansion of Medicaid, in one of the poorest states in the country. This is also the same place where the current challenge to Roe V. Wade is coming out of Mississippi, showing how our basic rights are twisted around and manipulated for political ends.

We have to look at this whole landscape, whether it’s around reproductive rights or existing health conditions in poverty and race—all of these tell a story that the Poor People’s Campaign has been beginning to tell about how our politics and policies have not seen or centered the true extent of need in the country. 140 million people are poor or one emergency away from being poor, people of every race, ethnicity, age, religion and living in every county of the country. We have to look at Hinds County, Mississippi, alongside the Bronx and put those together with Mingo County, West Virginia, a majority white county, one of the poorest counties in the nation, with a COVID death rate that was just as high or higher as some of these other places. What’s the common thread here? And if we could identify that thread, would we have a better way to address the immediate harms that communities have been facing, which in fact reflect decades of policy violence?

We have to hold this country accountable to the poor—to the 40 percent of the nation who are poor—and turn the great abundance we have to address everything that is lacking in these communities.

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