WFH will deepen income inequality, unless we do these four things

WFH will deepen income inequality, unless we do these four things
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While it wasn’t necessarily by choice, the coronavirus pandemic sparked an evolution in remote and hybrid work policies. For many, gone are the days of commuting to the office, socializing in an office space, and work hours tied to the traditional 9-5 schedule in our new normal.

According to McKinsey, organizations worldwide have created new working norms in the post-pandemic work era, reportedly 58% of U.S. job holders—or 92 million people— working remotely at least part-time. Working from home certainly isn’t without its benefits, but it also comes with the cost of risking deepening inequalities. The ability to work from home differs along the lines of age, gender, class, race, and urban-rural disparities across the U.S. and beyond.

In this post, we’ll:

  • Define work-from-home inequality 
  • Discuss gender differences in remote work inequality 
  • Explain the impacts of the digital divide
  • Share what’s at stake and four solutions for narrowing the gap

What is work-from-home inequality?

In simple terms, work from home inequality refers to how remote workers benefit from their working conditions in a way that non-telecommuting roles can’t replicate. 

For example, the possibility of working remotely isn’t an option for every industry and occupation. Some lines of work, such as manufacturing and construction work (or other trades), are not suitable for remote work, making the possibility of working from home unequal across the board. This can create limited opportunities for low-income classes who don’t have access or money for an education that provides a stepping stone into telecommuting roles.

At the same time, work from inequality also refers to the difference in benefits telecommuters enjoy compared to their non-telecommuting counterparts. Those who work from home can swap commute time for household chores, personal interests, childcare, and self-care. On top of that, remote workers spend less on food, clothing, and transportation. Not only do non-telecommuting roles not offer these same benefits, but in many instances, these individuals earn less income and have to spend it on expenses like childcare, food, and transportation.


Women and gender inequality at work

Pre-existing inequalities existed between genders in the workforce long before the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 exacerbated these gender disparities following the rise in remote work in some households. Even before the pandemic, sociologists described the “second shift” of unpaid work many women pick up after hours, including household chores and caregiving. Not to mention that the burden of virtual schooling and child care disproportionately fell on working mothers.

For some, remote work better accommodates this unpaid work by creating more time and flexibility for it. However, some suggest that women who opt for remote work sacrifice career opportunities and the potential for advancement as part of the process. 

The research is striking. Millions of women left their jobs during the pandemic at higher rates than men even before the pandemic. And research revealed unemployment rates were higher amongst women of color, exacerbating racial disparities.

How the pandemic got us here

According to Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, as of June 2020, just under half of the U.S. labor force was working remotely full-time. While widespread distributed work has many benefits, there’s a risk it may also exacerbate income inequality and decrease economic mobility.

Bloom expected WFH to remain popular even after the government lifted COVID-19 restrictions (and statistics suggest this is true). Remote workers are an economic powerhouse. While 42% of the labor force was remote two years ago, remote work is emerging as a permanent fixture of the workforce and continues to grow.

Remote work seems to be working for the 86% of remote workers who said they were happy with their current arrangements in a recent NYT survey. For many, remote work means more breaks, more time spent outside, and less time commuting—all of which lead to lower stress and higher productivity.

However, widespread remote work may widen the divide between the haves and have-nots in American society.

That’s due in large part to the fact that many Americans don’t have access to the technology, space, or high-speed internet required to work fully remote. Low-income and non-white Americans are most likely to lack access to the tools necessary to participate in the remote work revolution, meaning this shift may exacerbate income inequality and hamper economic mobility.

How the digital divide impacts income inequality

Only 65% of Americans’ home internet is fast enough for Zoom. Many U.S. households don’t have computers. Researchers call the gaps in computer access, digital literacy, and high-speed broadband availability the “digital divide.”

Researchers have found that digital access varies widely according to race, income, and geography, among other factors. The evidence is strong that the digital divide disproportionately impacts rural, low-income, and non-white Americans.

For example, just 54% of households with incomes under $30,000 per year have personal computers. Geographically, just 51% of Americans living in rural areas have internet at home with “gigabit” speeds. And 39% of these households don’t have access to the internet at all. Lack of broadband access has shut 23 million Americans out of remote job interviews, Zoom classrooms, and telemedicine.

In addition, white Americans are more likely than either Black or Hispanic Americans to have broadband internet at home and are more likely to own a computer.

You can see the impacts of the digital divide in the results of an April 2020 WayUp survey. Black and Hispanic college students and recent graduates said they were much less confident about their ability to succeed in virtual workspaces than their white peers. Low-income and non-white Americans also tend to live with more people in their homes, so they have less space and quiet to work.

What’s at stake

Economic mobility is the likelihood that a person will reach a different socioeconomic status than they were born into. For decades, economic mobility in the U.S. has been flat (or declining, depending on who you ask). For non-white Americans, economic mobility is lower. It’s also lower than in similar countries.

Many believe America is the land of opportunity, where birth isn’t destiny, and people can lift themselves out of poverty through hard work. Persistent low economic mobility belies these ideas. In reality, many Americans are wealthy because they were born into upper and middle-class families, while many stay poor because they’re locked out of economic opportunities.

The digital divide is just one of many ways we exclude low-income and non-white workers from economic opportunity and prevented from achieving greater economic security than they grew up with.

Low economic mobility isn’t just a moral failure; it also hampers economic growth. Similarly, millions of U.S. workers without access to the internet isn’t just a problem for those workers. A 2016 study by the Council of Economic Advisers shows that widespread broadband access leads to economic growth, better health outcomes, and more civic participation.

Four potential solutions

Here are four ways to help create more opportunities and reduce the number of inequalities in the workplace. 

1. Donate computers to help narrow the digital divide 

Providing free or low-cost computers helped low-income families in Detroit get online. One beneficiary of the Knight Foundation program, art teacher Stephen Pitts, used his free laptop to learn how to get better at painting online. Donating refurbished laptops to underserved families is one way to help bridge the digital divide. In addition to donating these devices, educational support and connectivity are vital to the success of activating these tools. 

2. Subsidize startup costs

Another way to help families get online is to help defray the high upfront costs of getting internet access. Many families don’t have the cash on hand to pay deposits, buy routers, and pay installation fees to get online. Low-income households can take advantage of the Affordable Connectivity Program

3. Keep legislators accountable

Congress has put forward multiple bills to close the urban-rural divide in internet access in light of the pandemic. Due to the high cost of connecting rural communities, market forces alone cannot bridge the gap. While well-connected workers might lobby for government policies to help bridge the digital divide, it’s important to ensure that large companies don’t keep getting government contracts and then not serving needy areas, fighting accountability, and banning competition from municipalities.

Explore programs like The Marshall Plan for Moms and encourage policymakers to get behind these initiatives. Policies like paid family leave and affordable child care are instrumental in addressing gender differences in the labor force.

4. Encourage dense building

Another potential solution is to encourage dense building in your municipality. Most residential areas in the U.S. are zoned to allow developers only to build single-family homes. This increases the cost of housing in high-opportunity, well-connected cities. This means people living in far-flung, disconnected areas can’t afford to move. Not only would this help bridge the digital divide at zero cost, but research confirms rezoning cities for density will encourage economic growth, enhance economic mobility, and benefit the environment.

Going forward

Fully distributed work was growing in popularity before widespread work-from-home policies. We’re likely to see even more work move entirely online as most workers find they prefer to work from home, and employers aren’t seeing the drops in productivity they feared. We have an opportunity to redefine the future of work in a way that makes massive shifts toward ensuring workforce opportunities are available to all. 

Before the coronavirus, the digital divide had already locked millions of disadvantaged Americans out of economic opportunity. Women worked an unpaid “second shift” and are still balancing workplace responsibilities amongst their many other duties.

Now that more work is moving online, it’s crucial to ensure we bridge the gap and push for solutions to reduce inequalities so that every American can have access to economic and social opportunities.

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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