More Less
More Less

Helping the poor to comply with social distancing

Opinion image

How can people comply with confinement measures if they can neither work from home nor afford food delivery? Social distancing is tough for everyone, but for many poor, it can be unbearable. 

The economics literature suggests that people follow the rules as far as they believe that policy decisions are fair, resulting in a stronger willingness to contribute to the welfare of the community. A Covid-19 policy response that asks the poor to stay at home without helping them satisfy their essential needs is likely to be perceived as unsustainable and unfair, resulting in lower compliance with the emergency rules by a larger population and subsequently to a more rapid spread of disease.

We recently studied how to encourage the observance of pandemic rules of behavior by assessing the impact of a food relief program on compliance with social distancing mandates at the onset of the pandemic recession. At the end of March 2020, the Italian government launched emergency measures to provide food stamps to economically disadvantaged groups. We combined information on the distribution of resources across Italian municipalities with data tracking citizens’ movements through mobile devices and vehicles’ navigation systems, anonymized and aggregated at the municipality level. This approach relies on the assumption that human mobility is a good proxy for compliance, as social distancing requires staying at home and renouncing unnecessary movements. 

To disentangle the causal impact of the aid program from possible spurious correlations, we exploited a nonlinearity in the allocation of funds that randomly partitioned Italian municipalities into a treated and a control group in the neighborhood of a threshold point. A quota of resources was distributed to municipalities depending on the deviation of their per capita income from the national level in 2017. A €-1,000 per capita deviation from the cut-off determined an increase in municipality transfers of €0.58 per capita (i.e. €0.58 multiplied by the population size) to be distributed to the limited group of beneficiaries. The remaining resources were allocated in proportion to the municipalities’ populations.

There is strong evidence that mobility decreased with the size of the transfers received in a municipality. The effect is statistically significant and economically sizable. In the week when the policy was announced, the transfers caused a drop in mobility of 3 percentage points from the baseline level observed before the pandemic crisis (between January 13 and February 16, 2020). Two weeks later, the impact was still negative, statistically significant, and sizable. Given an average drop of 0.60 percentage points in the neighborhood of the threshold point in the same week, the increase in transfers determined by a €-1,000 per capita deviation from the threshold point causes a decrease in mobility of 5%. The decline in mobility persisted for approximately two more weeks.

The size of the effect suggests that more than one mechanism may have been at work in channeling the impact of the aid program. Food relief probably reduced mobility needs and decreased the willingness of members of the targeted group to contravene stay-at-home orders. However, behavioral spillovers may also have occurred, affecting a larger population than the limited pool of the program’s beneficiaries. Improving the fairness of the Covid-19 policy response may have strengthened lower-income agents’ motives for staying at home by reinforcing the social contract between citizens and public institutions.

The take-home message for policymakers is straightforward. The poor face the most challenging difficulties in coping with stay-at-home orders. Therefore, alleviating their essential needs can have a substantial impact on social distancing. Confinement measures need to be accompanied by adequate compensation for economically disadvantaged groups, and relief measures must also be designed in light of their potential impact on social distancing. Aside from enhancing fairness, these policies have and will reduce the spread of disease.

© Claudio Deiana, Andrea Geraci, Gianluca Mazzarella, and Fabio Sabatini

Claudio Deiana is an assistant professor at the University of Cagliari, CRENoS, and University of Essex, UK.
Andrea Geraci is a research fellow at the Competence Centre for Microeconomic Evaluation of the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.
Gianluca Mazzarella is a research fellow at the Competence Centre for Microeconomic Evaluation of the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.
Fabio Sabatini is professor of economics at Sapienza University of Rome, and a Research Fellow of IZA.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.