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Economy and Finance

How COVID is Deepening California's Income Inequality, in 5 Charts

Anne Wernikoff
Food security, ability to pay rent and loss of low-wage jobs are three areas where economic disparities in California are most visible amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has left millions of Californians without jobs, food or money for next month’s rent. Meanwhile, the state’s many billionaires got richer.

The decade dawned on a California that was both “the richest and poorest” state in the nation, in the words of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Wages for the top 10% of California’s earners had grown three times as fast as those of the bottom 10% of earners since 1980 — all as the cost of buying or renting shelter skyrocketed.

Then coronavirus tore across the globe, sickening hundreds of thousands of Californians and shutting down California’s booming service and tourism economies — not once but now twice.

The pandemic has driven a wedge into the fault lines dividing the state’s haves and have nots. The workers facing the highest rates of unemployment are those that already earned the lowest wages. Federal and state lawmakers have cobbled together an enhanced pandemic safety net, but many fall through the cracks. And it will soon shrink back towards its previous size when CARES Act funding for extra unemployment dollars expires July 31.

Like a feedback loop, California’s income inequality may also add fuel to the virus’ spread. The second wave of cases now overwhelming the state are increasingly among young Californians and Latinos — the same demographics that make up California’s essential workforce, and disproportionately live in crowded housing.

California’s economic divide is growing, posing weighty policy questions the state – and its residents – will need to grapple with in months and years ahead.

1. Before the pandemic, many Californians were on the brink of poverty

2. The pandemic hit low-wage workers who are women, young and not white hardest

3. A third of Californians don’t know how they’ll pay next month’s rent

4. By one researcher’s estimate, the rate of household food insecurity has doubled

5. Meanwhile, the rich got richer

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.