People from lower-income households spend up to 6 hours a year longer waiting for basic services than those that are wealthier. Black people also spend longer waiting
9 February 2023
People from low-income households spend at least 6 additional hours per year waiting for government services, childcare and healthcare than people from wealthier households in the US. Additionally, regardless of their economic status, Black people spend as much time waiting as those with lower incomes.
Stephen Holt at the University at Albany in New York decided to investigate how waiting times vary for different people after his wife experienced an unexpectedly long wait at the optometrist. He drew on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, in which participants record a 24-hour time diary of activities like working, studying and running errands.
Holt and his colleague Katie Vinopal found that people in households making less than $20,000 a year spend an average of 12 additional minutes waiting on each day that waiting occurs compared with those in households earning more than $150,000. Around a quarter of people in the US live in households in the lower-income group and 8 per cent in the higher-income group.
For medical care, people in the lower-income bracket waited 18 more minutes on average than those in the higher-income group.
The pair also found that Black people are more likely to wait longer for services regardless of income status, and Hispanic people are more likely to wait for services than white people in the same income bracket.
The researchers estimate that all this additional waiting costs the US economy between $3.6 billion and $9.3 billion in lost productivity each year. “This is 6 hours a year not of waiting, but of additional waiting, just because you’re low income,” says Holt.
“The experience of waiting longer for things than other people around you… triggers a very pointed sense of unfairness,” says Elizabeth Cohen at Syracuse University in New York. One reason for longer wait times, she says, is that low-income people often rely on government programs that involve slow and burdensome processes.
Holt says racial discrimination may be one reason wealthy Black people face longer wait times than white people with similar incomes. He also says that previous research has found Black people with high incomes are more likely to live in mixed-income neighbourhoods than wealthy white or Hispanic people, so they are more likely to have to share over-burdened services even if they are wealthy.
Waiting can be more than just frustrating. Delays in accessing medical care, which can occur when there aren’t enough staff to meet demand, can lead to worse health outcomes. Long lines in grocery stores may prompt people to take less frequent trips and purchase more shelf-stable, processed foods.
There is no single solution to reducing wait times, says Holt, but having more flexible resources that accommodate different work schedules could help. He also suggests increasing access to government-provided healthcare like Medicaid and boosting investment in neighbourhood resources, which could further close the time-inequity gap.
Journal reference: Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01524-w
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