The Effect of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Income Inequality

During 2020, Congress and President Donald Trump responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with very aggressive fiscal policy initiatives. First, in March 2020, Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act increased the federal government’s expenditures by $1.9 trillion. Then, in December 2020, in response to the continuing effects of the pandemic, Congress and President Trump included an additional $915 billion in expenditures related to Covid-19 in the Consolidated Appropriations Act.  These two fiscal policy actions included payments directly to households and supplemental unemployment insurance payments. Higher income households were not eligible for the direct payments (often referred to as “stimulus payments”). Higher income households were also less likely to be unemployed and so were less likely to receive the supplemental unemployment insurance payments.

In Chapter 17, Section 17.4, we discuss the unequal distribution of income in the United States. Because the federal payments were targeted toward lower and middle income households, did the payments result in a decline in income inequality? Table 17.6 in Chapter 17, shows a common measure of the distribution of income: Households in the United States are divided into five income quintiles, from the 20 percent with the lowest incomes to the 20 percent with the highest incomes, along with the fraction of total income received by each of the five groups. The following table displays the distribution of income using this measure for 2019 and 2020. (We also include the data for the share of income received by the 5 percent of households with the highest incomes.) Note that the definition of income used in the table includes tax payments households make in that year in addition to payments—including the stimulus payments—received from the government. The income is also “equivalence adjusted,” which means that income is adjusted to account for how many adults and children are in a household.

YearLowest 20%Second 20%Middle 20%Fourth 20% Highest 20%Highest 5%
20194.7%10.4%15.7%22.6%46.6%19.9%
20205.1%10.9%16.0%22.8%45.2%18.9%
Percentage change in income share8.7%4.8%2.1%0.8%−3.0%−5.1%

The table shows that the distribution of income in the United States became somewhat more equal during 2020, with the share of income going to each of the first four quintiles increasing, while the income of the highest quintile declined.  The income share of the lowest quintile increased the most—by 8.7 percent—while the income share of the top 5 percent of households decreased by 5.1%. In that section of Chapter 17, we discuss the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of how unequal the distribution of income is. The Gini coefficient ranges between 0 and 1 with higher values indicating a more unequal distribution. Between 2019 and 2020, the Gini coefficient decline from 0.416 to 0.399, or by 4.1 percent, which measure the extent to which the income distribution became more equal. 

Will the reduction in income inequality the United States experienced during 2020 persist? It seems likely to, at least through 2021, given that in March 2021, Congress and President Joe Biden enacted the American Recovery Act, which included payments to households of up to $1,400 per eligible household member. As with the payments to households made during 2020, high-income households were not eligible. Congress also extended supplemental unemployment insurance payments through early September 2021 in states that were willing to accept the payments. 

What about after federal stimulus payments to households end? (As of late 2021, it appeared unlikely that Congress and President Biden planned on enacting any further payments.) One indication that some of the reduction in inequality might be sustained comes from the sharp increases in the wages of many low-skilled workers. For instance, in October 2021, the wages (as measured by their average hourly earnings) of workers in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes workers in restaurants and hotels, increased by nearly 12 percent over the previous year. For all workers in the private sector, wages increased by about 5 percent over the same period. Many of the workers in this industry have low incomes. So, the fact that their wages were increasing more than twice as fast as wages in the overall economy indicates that at least some low-income workers were closing the earnings gap with other workers.

Sources: Emily A. Shrider, Melissa Kollar, Frances Chen, and Jessica Semega, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-270, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020, Washington, DC, U.S. Government Printing Office, September 2021, Table C-3; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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