With the pandemic exposing and compounding inequality in matters large and small, access to private, controllable space has emerged as a new class divide — more valuable than ever to those who have it and potentially fatal to those who do not.
Inmates, farmworkers, detained immigrants, Native Americans and homeless families are among the discrete groups whose dilemmas have attracted notice. What they share may be little beyond poverty and one of its overlooked costs: the perils of proximity.
In addition to heightened risk of contagion, close quarters can worsen a host of ills, from flared tempers to child abuse and domestic violence.
Among those disproportionately affected are the incarcerated, with outbreaks hitting the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City (more than 850 cases among inmates and staff), the Cook County jail in Chicago (more than 350 cases), and the Oakdale Federal Correctional facility in Louisiana (at least five inmate deaths). Mounting evidence also indicates the virus disproportionately hurts minorities, with data from New York City suggesting blacks and Latinos dying at twice the rate of whites.
The share of poor families doubled up has been rising for at least two decades, said Hope Harvey, a Cornell University sociologist. After the Great Recession, researchers at the Census Bureau found 20 percent of children were living in shared households, including three-generation homes headed by grandparents. In urban areas, as many as half of children live in doubled-up housing by age 9.
Since infection rates among children appear to be low, the pandemic is often described as a blight that is sparing the young. But the social risks inherent in crowded housing may suggest the opposite. Research on the 2008 recession found evidence that rising foreclosures led to increased child abuse. And with schools closed, there is less monitoring.