Active policy required to avoid COVID-19 crisis exacerbating existing inequalities

The COVID-19 crisis has brought existing inequalities to the fore. It also risks exacerbating them. How we respond to it will determine whether the recovery is an inclusive one or ends up entrenching and widening social divisions. These are the main conclusions of a new report from the IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Among the risks are:

  • A widening in wage and employment inequalities. In the short run, it is overwhelmingly low earners who are in shut-down sectors, being furloughed and at risk of unemployment. In the longer run, more reliance on technology and working from home could favour the more highly educated at the expense of others.
  • A widening in health inequalities. In the short run, the crisis appears to have widened even further the gap in death rates between better-off and less-affluent neighbourhoods, as well as between some ethnic minorities and the white majority. We know that periods of unemployment, most likely to affect the low-skilled, can have major detrimental long-term effects on health.
  • A widening in ethnic inequalities. Some minority ethnic groups, and especially those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, are much more likely than others to work in shut-down sectors. Black groups are disproportionately represented in key worker occupations and have been contracting COVID-19 at far higher rates than the white majority.
  • A widening in generational inequalities. Those leaving school or university this year will enter the toughest labour market in more than a generation. Workers under 25 are twice as likely as those over 25 to work in a locked-down sector. After a tough decade, this could knock the younger generation back once more.
  • A widening in gender inequalities. The additional childcare and housework as people stay at home and schools and nurseries closed has fallen far more on mothers than fathers. There must be a risk that this disproportionately inhibits work and career progression for mothers, when progress in closing the gender wage gap had already stalled.
  • A widening in educational inequalities. Private schools are almost twice as likely to be providing online teaching as the state schools attended by children from the fifth most deprived families. Within the state sector, 55% of families from the most affluent backgrounds (top fifth) report schools providing online classes, compared with 40% among the least affluent. Better-off pupils also have better home facilities and are much more likely to have private tutoring. This could put back years of slow progress on social mobility.

The longer-term consequences are not all inevitable though. Some trends may turn out to be positive:

  • An increase in remote working, and in the productivity of remote working, could be especially helpful for mothers’ careers. It may also allow more high-paid and high-productivity jobs to be located away from London.
  • The increase in time that fathers are spending with their children during the crisis – even though less than mothers – might accelerate changes in gender norms. 
  • Attitudes may change – to the welfare system, to key workers, to inequalities between ethnic groups – in ways which make inclusive economic and social policies easier to sell and deliver.

Avoiding the worst outcomes, and having a chance at the best, will require effective policy. For example:

  • Effective routes through further and vocational education will be more important than ever.
  • Government will need to ensure that small firms that have a viable future survive the crisis, to avoid concentration of market power.
  • Effective welfare to work and training, which equip those who become unemployed with genuinely valuable skills, will be vital.
  • Children, especially poorer children, who are missing out on school will need additional teaching post crisis.

Robert Joyce, Deputy Director at IFS and an author of the report, said:

“The crisis has laid bare existing inequalities and risks exacerbating them, but some of its legacies might also provide opportunities. Government will need to be on the front foot in laying the groundwork for a strong and inclusive recovery even while still dealing with the immediate crisis. If, for example, we can limit now the severity of career disruption, the widening of health and educational inequalities, or the extent to which small firms that had a productive future are squeezed out by larger established competitors, policy’s job in years to come will be much less difficult than if it is trying to limit or undo the damage.”

Mark Franks, Director of Welfare at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“This report provides further evidence that people are not affected equally by the COVID-19 pandemic – either in terms of the immediate risk to health or the negative social and economic consequences. In particular, some minority ethnic groups, people in certain key worker occupations, and those in low-income jobs – groups that often overlap – are at much greater risk. It is essential that the immediate policy response takes steps to address these inequalities, but we also need to understand and mitigate the underlying systemic and institutional factors that underpin them.”

More about this project


Explore our projects

Older-man-reads-textbook-Assembling-data-jigsaw-Greater-Manchester-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2024

Assembling the data jigsaw: powering robust population research in MSK disease

View project
Medical-professional-massages-patient-knee-Understanding-joint-replacement-surgery-decision-making-for-older-patients-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2023

Supporting older patients to make informed decisions about knee surgery

View project
Woman-medical-professional-treats-patient-impact-MSK-conditions-outcomes-other-illnesses-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

The impact of musculoskeletal conditions on outcomes of other illnesses

View project
Female-nurse-sees-patient-in-office-Integrating-enriched-longitudinal-data-North-Staffordshire-Stoke-on-Trent-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2025

Enriched data integration for population musculoskeletal health intelligence

View project
Older-man-and-woman-walk-together-Geographical-mapping-prevalence-outcomes-MSK-conditions-Wales-Scotland-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Mapping rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease in Scotland and Wales

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Older people in England: the geography of challenges and opportunities

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on mainstream schools in England

View project
Toddler-gleefully-eats-baked-beans-How-COVID-19-is-affecting-food-security-proj
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

How the COVID-19 crisis is affecting food security

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Vulnerability, migration and wellbeing: experiences, perceptions and barriers

View project
Senior-woman-enjoys-video-call-on-smartphone-Social-cohesion-in-context-of-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

Social cohesion in the context of COVID-19

View project
Woman-looks-at-smartphone-screen-How-the-UK-public-gets-information-about-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2020

How the UK public gets information about COVID-19

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

COVID-19 and families on a low income: poverty in the pandemic

View project
New

Justice | 2020 - 2022

Youth custody: Educational influences and labour market consequences

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Vulnerability, migration and wellbeing: experiences, perceptions and barriers

View project
Toddler-gleefully-eats-baked-beans-How-COVID-19-is-affecting-food-security-proj
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

How the COVID-19 crisis is affecting food security

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on mainstream schools in England

View project
Early years worker sitting at table with children
New

Education | 2020 - 2021

The ‘common elements’ approach: improving outcomes in early childhood education

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Older people in England: the geography of challenges and opportunities

View project
Senior-woman-enjoys-video-call-on-smartphone-Social-cohesion-in-context-of-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

Social cohesion in the context of COVID-19

View project
Teenage-girl-looks-at-smartphone-next-to-laptop-Growing-up-under-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Education | Welfare | 2020 - 2021

Growing up under COVID-19

View project
Young-boy-wearing-glasses-watches-laptop-school-lesson-with-notepad-The-effects-COVID-19-on-families-time-use-child-development-PROJ
New

Education | 2020 - 2022

The effects of COVID-19 on families’ time-use and child development

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

COVID-19 social study

View project
Empty-street-with-cyclist-and-pedestrian-in-distance-Law-and-compliance-during-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Justice | 2020 - 2021

Law and compliance during COVID-19

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

COVID-19 and families on a low income: poverty in the pandemic

View project
Older-man-reads-textbook-Assembling-data-jigsaw-Greater-Manchester-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2024

Assembling the data jigsaw: powering robust population research in MSK disease

View project
Medical-professional-massages-patient-knee-Understanding-joint-replacement-surgery-decision-making-for-older-patients-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2023

Supporting older patients to make informed decisions about knee surgery

View project
Woman-medical-professional-treats-patient-impact-MSK-conditions-outcomes-other-illnesses-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

The impact of musculoskeletal conditions on outcomes of other illnesses

View project
Female-nurse-sees-patient-in-office-Integrating-enriched-longitudinal-data-North-Staffordshire-Stoke-on-Trent-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2025

Enriched data integration for population musculoskeletal health intelligence

View project
Older-man-and-woman-walk-together-Geographical-mapping-prevalence-outcomes-MSK-conditions-Wales-Scotland-PROJ
In progress

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Mapping rheumatic and musculoskeletal disease in Scotland and Wales

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Older people in England: the geography of challenges and opportunities

View project
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2022

Vulnerability, migration and wellbeing: experiences, perceptions and barriers

View project
Toddler-gleefully-eats-baked-beans-How-COVID-19-is-affecting-food-security-proj
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

How the COVID-19 crisis is affecting food security

View project
Senior-woman-enjoys-video-call-on-smartphone-Social-cohesion-in-context-of-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2021

Social cohesion in the context of COVID-19

View project
New

Education | 2020 - 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on mainstream schools in England

View project
In progress

Education | 2020 - 2021

Post-16 educational trajectories and social inequalities in political engagement

View project
Woman-looks-at-smartphone-screen-How-the-UK-public-gets-information-about-COVID-19-PROJ
New

Welfare | 2020 - 2020

How the UK public gets information about COVID-19

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2019 - 2020

Valuing data: foundations for data policy

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2019 - 2020

Revaluation and reform: bringing council tax into the 21st century

View project
Maths resit students taking exam
Reported

Education | 2019 - 2020

A new mathematics GCSE curriculum for post-16 resit students

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2019

Atlas of inequality: understanding the local nature of a global phenomenon

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2018

GCSE and A-level results day project

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2020

Teaching reading: an integrated programme for deaf & hearing children

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Interdisciplinary conference on evidence use in policy

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2019

Overview of the major ethical issues arising from data, algorithms and AI

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Council tax support schemes’ impact on claimants & local authorities

View project
Reported

Justice | Welfare | 2018 - 2019

Pathways of incarcerated children in care

View project
Reported

Education | 2018 - 2019

Developing a sustainable intervention for disadvantaged children

View project
Reported

Welfare | 2018 - 2018

Improving survey representation of non-resident parents

View project
Search projects

We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.

Profile

COVID-19 response

Nuffield-funded social scientists are conducting COVID-19 research in real-time, to capture people’s experiences of the social, cultural and economic impacts of the pandemic.