Who Has More COVID-19 Depression, the Rich or the Poor?

New research examines the connection between SES and well-being during COVID-19.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

It is no secret that lower-income people have been harder hit by the pandemic. They have experienced more physical harm and financial hardship as a result of COVID-19. So it stands to reason that they should be struggling more from a psychological standpoint, right?

Not so fast, says new research forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

A team of researchers led by Connie Wanberg of the University of Minnesota found that the two defining features of socio-economic status (SES), education and income, were both predictive of greater declines in psychological well-being over the course of the pandemic.

“Individuals with higher education experienced a greater increase in depressive symptoms and a greater decrease in life satisfaction from before to during the pandemic in comparison to those with lower education,” say the researchers. “Supplemental analysis illustrates that income had a curvilinear relationship with changes in well-being, such that individuals at the highest levels of income experienced a greater decrease in life satisfaction from before to during COVID-19 than individuals with lower levels of income.”

To come to this conclusion, the scientists examined data from two surveys of 1,143 U.S. adults from the RAND Corporation’s nationally representative and ongoing American Life Panel project. Data from the first survey were collected before the pandemic occurred, from April-June 2019. The same people were surveyed again in April 2020. This allowed the researchers to test the effect of the pandemic on individuals’ psychological well-being using a pre/post experimental design.

Overall, they found a substantial drop in well-being from 2019 to 2020. This, of course, was a clear result of the pandemic. For instance, for the question, “How do you feel about your life as a whole right now?” (1 = very dissatisfied, 10 = very satisfied), participants' responses were significantly lower in 2020 than 2019. To be exact, the average score was 7.12 in 2020 compared to 7.76 in 2019. Depressive symptoms also increased, with the symptoms of “Poor appetite or overeating,” “Little interest or pleasure in doing things,” “Trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television,” “Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless,” and “Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much” showing the largest increases.

While decreases in psychological well-being were larger for high-SES individuals, the researchers struggled to find an explanation for why this was the case. One possibility has to do with the fact that higher-SES individuals have higher life satisfaction and less depressive symptoms to begin with. In other words, these individuals might have had more room for downward movement in light of coronavirus. Another possibility is that high-SES individuals were more tuned in to the news media's coverage of the pandemic, which resulted in a greater dip in psychological well-being.

A third possibility is that high-SES individuals have a strong expectation for a "constant availability of resources" and therefore experience greater decreases in well-being during times of crisis. The scientists find this explanation to be particularly compelling given that low-SES individuals have been affected more by the pandemic on non-psychological measures, such as physical health and personal finances.

The jury is still out on which of these explanations, if any, might account for these findings. The researchers highlight the need for follow-up studies that tease apart these competing explanations. They also hope that future work will continue to track the effects of SES on mental health over time. They write, “Future research should examine well-being among groups of higher and lower SES over a longer time during the pandemic as well as moderators of the impact of education.”


Wanberg, C. R., Csillag, B., Douglass, R. P., Zhou, L., & Pollard, M. S. (2020). Socioeconomic status and well-being during COVID-19: A resource-based examination. Journal of Applied Psychology.