Cell phone data reveals poorer people are less able to follow stay-at-home orders during COVID-19

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Individuals living in poorer and less affluent neighborhoods spent less time at home during various COVID-19 lockdown orders, according to a new international study. After analyzing mobile data on million of U.S. citizens, study authors say poorer families and households were unable to comply with pandemic safety recommendations as diligently as others due to financial and or employment related considerations.

More specifically, researchers suggest such individuals had to venture outside either because they simply couldn’t afford to stay home or due to employment requiring on-site attendance. Considering that health officials already consider the vulnerable and poor to be at a higher risk for COVID-19, these findings are particularly troubling.

Researchers relied on anonymous tracking data from 45 million U.S. mobile phone users for this project. That information came from all over the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Boston, from January through August 2020. The team’s investigation focused on answering one question: how much time did Americans spend at home during that period? Next, study authors compared those findings to demographic neighborhood statistics from The American Community Survey (ACS).

Upon completion, researchers found people living in richer areas (more wealthy residents, higher average household income) spent much more time at home during lockdown orders in comparison to those living in poorer neighborhoods. This held true across all included U.S. states and cities.

Education also appears to play a role

Neighborhoods with a higher percentage of postgraduates usually showed more lockdown compliance.

“Our study reveals the luxury nature of stay-at-home orders, which lower-income groups cannot afford to comply with,” says study co-author Xiao Huang, Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas, in a media release. “This disparity exacerbates long-standing social inequality issues present in the United States, potentially causing unequal exposure to a virus that disproportionately affects vulnerable populations.”

Similar trends have been reported in the United Kingdom as well. Data from the U.K. Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows people living in the most deprived or poor areas have been roughly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 during the pandemic thus far in comparison to U.K. citizens living in the most affluent neighborhoods.

Why is it so tough for such individuals to stay home?

Most of these people work jobs that require them to be on-site, while others don’t have the leeway that so many enjoy in more lucrative positions. In other words, if they take a day off, there’s no guarantee they’ll have a job waiting for them when they’re ready to come back.

“We must confront systemic social inequality and call for a high-priority assessment of the long-term impact of COVID-19 on geographically and socially disadvantaged groups,” Xiao Huang concludes.

The study appears in the journal Annals of the American Association of Geographers.