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COVID-19

How’s the economy? vs. how’s the economy for each of us?

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 8, 2020
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Macroeconomic data can help you see the big picture — the forest. But if you want to understand how groups within the economy are doing, examine the trees. Patrick Pleul/DPA/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

How’s the economy? vs. how’s the economy for each of us?

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 8, 2020
Heard on:
Macroeconomic data can help you see the big picture — the forest. But if you want to understand how groups within the economy are doing, examine the trees. Patrick Pleul/DPA/AFP via Getty Images
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COPY

Understanding the health of an economy depends on how you frame the data.

Macroeconomic data (like that found in the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report) can tell you about the economy as a whole, but disaggregating that data — breaking it up into subcategories like race, gender, and location— can reveal some interesting and important realities. 

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe is an economist and founding president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race (WISER). She talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about why getting more people to think about data in that disaggregated form has long been one of her goals. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So help us understand why disaggregated data matters in a policy sense.

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe: So, I think I want to start by saying that when we disaggregate data, we move away from biases. So if you disaggregate data by race, you move away from whites being the norm. In a policy perspective, disaggregating data allows you to find the nuances and outcomes so that you can craft better policies. For example, when we think about the unemployment numbers that came out on Friday, the reports say that unemployment for Blacks increased from 16.7 to 16.8[%]. But that’s the unemployment number for Blacks as a whole. If you disaggregate that, which the BLS did, then you will see that unemployment for Black men went down from 16.1 to 15.5, but for Black women, it increased. The challenge when we don’t have data that has been disaggregated, is it’s harder to craft effective policies. You end up proposing policies that are sort of one-size-fits-all, and that might not be the population that is most vulnerable.

Ryssdal: Could you give me an example of data that is not disaggregated that you have come across that we would benefit from knowing some of the details and the intersectionality of it?

Vonshay Sharpe: Yeah, so I’ll stay with an unemployment example. So BLS reported that part-time workers have increased, but they did not disaggregate that data. So what we don’t know is, was that an increase in the number of women who are working part time? We don’t know if that was an increase in the number of folks who are caregivers, we don’t know what sectors that impacted. So as we’re thinking about the CARES Act and we’re thinking about the payroll protection plan, we need to have data that’s coming out of BLS that’s talking about the current economic situation to be disaggregated, so that for the next round of policies, we can have policies that are going to be effective and actually help the folks who need the most help. 

Ryssdal: Do you suppose this is a moment — or do you hope, I guess —  that this is a moment where this cause might take on a little bit of resonance for people as we try to figure our way through this?

Vonshay Sharpe: I’m optimistic. So, Sen. [Elizabeth] Warren and [Rep. Ayanna] Pressley, as well as Sen. [Tim] Kaine and Sen. [Mark] Warner have proposed disaggregating data of the COVID-19 pandemic. My concern is whether or not it will be disaggregated appropriately. If you look at the way that COVID-19 data is being reported, it’s being reported by race and ethnicity, and it’s been reported by gender and county and age, but what we really need to have that data reported by is at the intersection of race and gender and age and location, so that we can have an idea about who’s being impacted. And I’m not confident that that’s going to happen.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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