- A Morning Consult analysis looked at consumer confidence throughout the pandemic.
- It has a K shape like the wider recovery, with more educated Americans more confident about work.
- The new stimulus could change this K shape, but may not solve things like delayed rent payments.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
As the coronavirus pandemic disrupted life throughout 2020, economists debated the shape of the recovery from it. Would it be a V shape, a U shape, or even an L shape?
The answer that emerged was something different: A K shape, in which the well off recover like they’re in a V, and lower-income Americans never recover at all. President Joe Biden validated the diagnosis back in 2020, on stage during a presidential debate.
It stands to reason, therefore, that consumer confidence would follow the same K shape, but the results are nevertheless striking. A new analysis from Morning Consult, looking at consumer confidence throughout the pandemic, found lower-income Americans’ confidence in the economy dropped and stayed low during a slow rebound. Meanwhile, higher-educated Americans confidence rebounded like a V and continued to grow. In every state, people with bachelor’s degrees earn more than people without bachelor’s degrees.
John Leer, an economist at Morning Consult and the author of the analysis, told Insider that over the summer, people with bachelor’s degrees felt more confident that in their ability to hold onto their jobs and not lose pay.
The story was the opposite for others. At that point, Leer said, there’s a “real realization among lower-income workers that while they may have been able to hold onto their job to date, they’re much more likely to suffer a loss of pay or income sometime in the future.”
That divide only grew more K-shaped as the pandemic continued. A few months later, Leer said, those higher-educated workers’ confidence in their ability to hold onto their jobs translated into a willingness to engage in wage bargaining; they pushed for increases in their pay and benefits.
“The exact opposite” was true for lower-income Americans.
“If they had managed to hold onto a job, they certainly were not in a position to ask for an increase in salary or benefits,” Leer said.
He added: “What you see over the course of the past year is a really strong divergence in the degree to which Americans exhibit confidence in the economy, in their own personal finances, based on their level of education.”
K shape persists throughout rounds of stimulus
While the size of the first stimulus was “appropriate,” some snags with the rollout impacted confidence. Leer said lower-income Americans were less likely to have bank accounts or to have filed taxes in 2019 – meaning it took longer for the IRS to distribute money to them.
There was a similar phenomenon with states’ unemployment programs and getting money to unemployed workers, Leer said; Insider’s Allana Akhtar and Nick Lichtenberg reported that 35 different states ran into difficulties getting unemployment insurance to their jobless residents.
“As a result, we actually see confidence among those people with higher incomes rebounding a lot faster, because they were both more likely to receive the money they were due sooner, and, in addition, they were more likely to be employed in sectors that rebounded faster,” Leer said.
Notably, checks went out faster with the second stimulus, and confidence and spending grew – although higher-income Americans already had elevated levels of confidence.
“I view the recovery plan essentially as a lifeline for folks who are really struggling right now to make ends meet,” Leer said.
But when it comes to the K-shaped recovery, we’ll probably get a sense of how that’s playing out in September or October, according to Leer; it’ll mostly depend on what job recovery looks like.
“The gap in the so-called K-shaped recovery will depend on getting lower income and less well-educated workers back to work,” Leer said.
There’s also broader issues around what Leer calls “deferred liabilities” – the rent and mortgage payments that millions of Americans haven’t been able to pay over the past year. While the American Rescue Plan does offer billions in housing assistance, some progressives are saying it’s not enough to close the gap. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota just introduced the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act; she said that, currently, 12 million Americans owe $6,000 in back-rent on average.
To address this, Leer says “we have to be very honest with ourselves.” He said he would take an approach similar to a financial institution with someone who can’t pay back their debt.
“You’ve got to make some sort of calculated decision as to whether or not it’s reasonable to ask somebody to pay back what they owe,” Leer said. There could be families, he said, who haven’t been able to pay their rent for 12 months – and may not be able to for the whole pandemic.
“That sort of debt overhang is gonna slow down the recovery going forward. And I would hope that we as a country come up with some sort of solution to that.”