WATCH: Professor John Friedman Explains How an Economic Tracker Discovered COVID’s K-Shaped Recession — and What It Means for America’s Schools

August 1, 2021

John Friedman has made a career studying income inequality — including how children’s educational experiences affect their chances of prospering as adults. Friedman, a professor at Brown University, is one of the economists who founded Opportunity Insights, a team at Harvard University that researches income inequality. At the pandemic’s start, Friedman and his Harvard colleague Raj Chetty got hold of a number of nontraditional datasets that they used to build a tracker showing COVID’s toll on the economy.

What it showed was a K-shaped recession: For the wealthy people at the top of the K, the downturn was barely a blip. But for many impoverished households at the bottom, the recovery has yet to begin. 

The information they gathered from payroll processors, credit card companies and other big businesses showed, in real time, that even small changes in spending patterns by wealthy people had a dramatic impact on their less affluent neighbors. Instead of buying things from local small businesses, affluent people shifted their spending online. And as places like restaurants, gyms and nail salons lost customers, their low-income workers’ jobs vanished. 

In this video interview, Friedman talks about the data’s implications — and how the resulting widening inequality is likely to show up in schools.

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—Edited by James Fields

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provide financial support to Opportunity Insights and The 74.