Paying People To Stay Home Increases Social Distancing, UCSD Report Finds

Working-class families were overall much less likely to stay home since they needed to leave the house to work in order to get by, research found

NBC 5 News

Researchers from UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy are among the authors of a study released Thursday that found those suffering from economic hardships during COVID-19 are less likely comply with new stay-at-home orders but would be more likely to adhere to public health guidelines if they received stimulus funds.

The results, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, suggest that of the measures taken to address economic problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act helped reduce an important source of viral spread: social interaction.

"As counties received more stimulus funds, their residents stayed home more," according to the study. "When they did head out, people in counties where most had received stimulus checks traveled less than people in counties where most checks had not yet arrived.''

The researchers from UCSD and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy sought to accurately measure public willingness to abide by shelter-in-place ordinances first introduced in the spring.

They examined large quantities of geolocated cell phone device use patterns to help assess compliance with stay-at-home orders. The data, provided by the analytics company UNACAST, estimates information such as the number of people living in a home, the average time spent at home or outside, and changes in the average distance a user traveled.

To determine how economic conditions shape compliance, the researchers compared the cell-phone data to county records containing average household incomes for every county across the U.S. from February through July. They also took into account other factors that might influence county residents' willingness to comply, including how severely each county was hit by the virus, unemployment levels, population density, partisanship and where residents get their news.

They found that in counties with above-median income, residents complied with shelter-in-place policies, reducing movement by an additional 60% compared to before the policies were introduced. However, compliance with shelter-in-place orders in counties where the average income is below the median is uneven at best.

"Not surprisingly, impoverished communities exposed to economic dislocation are the least likely to comply with shelter-in-place policies," said co-author Jesse Driscoll, an associate professor of political science at UCSD.

"The data showed that working-class families -- especially those who had lost jobs or might soon lose them -- were overall much less likely to stay home, since they needed to leave the house to work. The more urgent public policy question going into this winter is whether these behaviors changed when stimulus checks arrived last time," Driscoll said.

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To assess how stimulus checks from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March impacted compliance, the researchers used the same cellphone movement data to determine whether household income increases changed behavior as more of a county's residents began receiving stimulus payments.

While some beneficiaries received their checks weeks ahead of others, the team was able to measure the impact stimulus dollars had on residents using data of recipients who used an electronic banking to deposit the funds, made available by the financial data company Facteus.

The researchers found that local stimulus injections significantly increased social distancing. For every additional dollar per capita a county received, movement temporarily declined by more than 1%.

The authors concluded that "targeted economic relief such as direct stimulus transfers and increased unemployment benefits may have limited potential spread of COVID-19 among economically disadvantaged populations."

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