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U.S. Household Wealth Rose Before the Pandemic, but Inequality Persisted

Families were making gains in income and net worth in the three years leading up to the pandemic, according to Federal Reserve data released on Monday, but wealth inequality remained stubbornly high.

Median household net worth climbed by 18 percent between 2016 and 2019, the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances showed, as median income increased by 5 percent. The survey, which began in 1989, is released every three years and is the gold standard in data about the financial circumstances of U.S. households. It offers the most up-to-date and comprehensive snapshot of everything from savings to stock ownership across demographic groups.

The figures tell a story of improving personal finances fueled by income gains, the legacy of the longest economic expansion on record that had pushed the unemployment rate to a half-century low and bolstered wages for those earning the least. Yet despite the progress, massive gaps persisted — the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of households was still near a three-decade high.

Nearly all of the data in the 2019 survey were collected before the onset of the coronavirus. Economists worry that progress for disadvantaged workers has probably reversed in recent months as the pandemic-related shutdowns threw millions of people out of work. The crisis has especially cost minority and less-educated employees, who are more likely to work in high-interaction jobs at restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. Many economists expect the crisis to worsen inequality as lower earners fare the worst.

“The economic downturn has not fallen equally on all Americans and those least able to shoulder the burden have been hardest hit,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a news conference earlier this month. “In particular, the high level of joblessness has been especially severe for lower wage workers in the services sector, for women and for African-Americans and Hispanics.”

The newly released 2019 data suggest that families with lower pretax incomes were catching up to their richer counterparts between 2016 and 2019. Families with high wealth, college educations, and those who identified as white and non-Hispanic — who all have higher incomes — enjoyed comparatively smaller earnings growth over the period, the Fed said.

Even so, inequality in both income and wealth remained high.

Since the survey started, families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution have gradually taken home a bigger share of the nations’ income while the share of the lower 90 percent of earners has gradually fallen. The bottom 90 percent’s income share increased slightly in 2019 — reversing a decade-long decline — but a Fed report on the data noted that the rebound happened from record lows and only took the group back to roughly its share from 2010 to 2013 share.

Affluent families have held a growing share of the nation’s wealth over recent decades, and they retained that advantage as of 2019. In 1989, the top 1 percent of wealth holders held about 30 percent of the nation’s net worth, but that had jumped to nearly 40 percent in 2016 and was little changed in the latest survey, Fed economists said.

Families in the bottom half of the wealth distribution held just 2 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2019, the Fed data and a related report showed.

The wealth measure does not include defined benefit pension plans and Social Security benefits, which are hard to value. An augmented measure that incorporates pension plans still shows that wealth at the top has still risen, but by less, according to a Fed report.

The concern now is that inequality — especially in income, which derives heavily from wages — could increase again as workers at the bottom lose jobs.

The unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in August, according to the Labor Department, but the rate was 13 percent for Black people. Likewise, the jobless rate for those with less than a high school diploma was more than twice that for adults with a bachelor’s degree or more.

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America’s Retirement Race Gap, and Ideas for Closing It

The protest movement across the United States this summer has prompted a national conversation about ways to correct the acute economic inequities facing Black and other Americans of color. Those inequities don’t end when people retire.

Racial gaps in retirement security were large before the coronavirus struck, and the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic could worsen the problem.

Solutions will depend, in part, on addressing the structural racism in American society — but policymakers also have proposed ideas for shrinking the gap more quickly.

Since the pandemic hit, unemployment rates for older Black and Latino workers have been much higher than for their white counterparts, and evidence is mounting that millions of older workers will retire prematurely. That will mean sharp reductions in Social Security income, savings and costly disruptions in employer-provided health care that will hit nonwhite workers especially hard.

But the gaps in resources for retirement were large before the pandemic. In 2016, the typical Black household approaching retirement had 46 percent of the retirement wealth of the typical white household, while the typical Hispanic household had 49 percent, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The result: At a time when many seniors struggle to make ends meet, Black and Latino retirees are especially likely to lack sufficient resources. Two-thirds of single Black retirees — and three-quarters of single Latinos — have incomes below the Elder Index, a data set from the University of Massachusetts Boston that aims to measure the capacity of older people to cover basic living expenses. By contrast, half of white seniors have resources below the index.

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Credit…The Urban Institute

The disparities stem from racism in the labor market, says Kilolo Kijakazi, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has written extensively on income, wealth and race. “We have a history of discrimination in hiring, pay, promotions and benefits. Discrimination in hiring also contributes to occupational segregation,” she said.

Labor inequities began with the enslavement of Black people, she adds. “White people dealt in human trafficking of people of African descent in order to create wealth for white people, but Black people did not benefit from the wealth of their labor. After Emancipation, we had laws and regulations designed to maintain that effect and even strip Black people of wealth they were able to create for themselves in the face of these odds.”

Policies served as barriers to wealth accumulation by Black people. The Jim Crow-era Black Codes restricted opportunity in many Southern states; racially restrictive covenants barred them from buying homes in white neighborhoods; and redlining practices made mortgages hard or impossible to obtain. The inequities have compounded over time, as families were unable to transfer wealth to subsequent generations.

“The way that wealth is generally created for most Americans is, wealth begets more wealth,” says Darrick Hamilton, an economist and executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. “Having access to a capital foundation that puts you into assets that will passively appreciate over your life — that’s how most Americans generate wealth.”

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Credit…Ty Wright for The New York Times

Social Security helps to level racial inequity in retirement. That’s due in part to the program’s progressive benefit formula — it returns a higher percentage of pre-retirement income to lower-income than higher-income workers. And unlike private pensions and homeownership, nearly all Americans participate in Social Security.

“The universal nature of Social Security is a big factor,” says Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research and co-author of the study.

The center measured all retirement wealth, including income from Social Security, employer-sponsored retirement plans, other financial assets and home equity. When Social Security is excluded, Black Americans have just 14 percent the wealth of whites, and Latinos have just 20 percent.

Several ideas have surfaced for changing Social Security that could close the gap further — but the most important might fall into the category of “do no harm.”

Some policymakers have pushed to raise Social Security’s full retirement age — when you can receive 100 percent of your earned benefit — as part of the solution to the program’s long-term financial shortfall. But workers of color earn less, have lower life expectancy and tend to work in physically demanding occupations that become more difficult to continue at older ages. For example, 50 percent of Black workers ages 55 to 62 reported in 2014 that they have jobs requiring “lots of physical effort,” compared with just 32 percent of whites.

Under the current system, filing at the earliest age, 62, gets you 75 percent of your annual full benefit; every 12 months of delay past your full retirement age (currently around 66, depending on your year of birth) gets you an additional 8 percentage points until you turn 70.

Retirement ages already are rising gradually to 67 from 65 under changes enacted in 1983. The Boston College researchers note that any further increase in full retirement ages would increase retirement wealth inequity and have a disproportionate impact on minority households.

What’s more, the average longevity of Black Americans is shorter — in 2014, their average life expectancy from age 65 was 18.1 years, compared with 19.3 years for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the expectancy for Black men was even shorter, at 16.1 years.

“When you lengthen the retirement age to get the full benefit, you’re putting a cut on the people who are going to die younger,” says William E. Spriggs, chief economist for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and a professor at Howard University. “Instead, we should be raising the tax on the higher-income people, who are going to live longer, and stop playing with the retirement age.”

One leading progressive organization would like to do more to address that issue. The group, Social Security Works, has proposed updating the current early retirement reductions, which have not been revised since 1956.

The percent of full benefit a worker could receive at age 62 would increase to 85 percent, gradually rising to 100 percent at full retirement age.

This change could be especially helpful to people of color if early retirement accelerates because of the pandemic.

Another Social Security change that Ms. Kijakazi and other experts think could help is to establish a more effective basic minimum benefit that ensures seniors don’t live in poverty. Currently, Social Security has a special minimum benefit, but its value has evaporated relative to standard benefits because its value is pegged to consumer inflation rather than indexed to wage growth, which generally rises more quickly. Several Social Security proposals from Democrats have called for a new minimum benefit that would provide a supplement using a sliding scale starting at full retirement age.

Increasing benefits for workers who enter and leave the labor force more frequently also could help. The current Social Security benefit formula is based on a worker’s highest 35 years of earnings; reducing that to 30 or even 25 would have the effect of increasing the adequacy of benefits for people who leave the work force to provide care or because of job loss.

A caregiver credit could be created that permits workers to earn Social Security credits for time devoted to that work. The idea has been embraced by some advocates and legislators, and included in bills introduced by Representative Nita Lowey, Democrat of New York, and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut.

Professor Hamilton has proposed creating a federal program of “baby bonds,” which would provide every child with a government-funded trust account at birth, starting with a $1,000 contribution; those born into lower-wealth families would receive more contributions over time, and the accounts would benefit from compound interest growth.

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Credit…Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

Baby bonds were a plank in the presidential campaign platform of Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. Senator Booker and Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, have sponsored bills in the Senate and House that would fund accounts guaranteed to accumulate to $46,531 at age 18 for children born into the lowest-income families, according to a press officer for Mr. Booker. The accounts would be managed by the Treasury and grow with a guaranteed interest rate and inflation protection, probably invested in special Treasury securities.

Use of the funds would be restricted to what Professor Hamilton calls “asset-enhancing endeavors,” such as buying a home, receiving a debt-free education or starting a business.

“The idea here is to ensure that access to capital is not limited to those that receive a trust fund because of the family that they’re born into,” he said. “And what we do to help younger people will have a dramatic impact on how they finish.”

Professor Hamilton’s version of the baby bond also would allow account owners to convert their funds into Individual Retirement Accounts. “If they don’t want to use the money earlier, they can use it when they are ready or let it go all the way to retirement.”

The idea for baby bonds was included among policy recommendations written jointly by allies of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which were delivered to Mr. Biden last month.

Professor Hamilton said he thought of baby bonds as a bit different from reparations for slavery, since they would be paid — at some level — to all Americans and the benefit is prospective, rather than retroactive.

“But I do describe baby bonds as anti-racist,” he said. “Wealth disparity probably is the most cumulative indicator of our intergenerational racist society.”

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How Buying Beans Became a Political Statement

For years, the Goya brand was synonymous with the Latino-American dream. The sheer number of products that lined the grocery store aisles — from refried pinto beans to sazón con azafran seasoning — spoke to the growing number of Hispanic immigrants who bought them. Goya, the nation’s largest Hispanic food company, has sponsored Dominican art shows, mariachi contests and soccer programs.

Advisers to President Trump considered it a victory when Goya’s chief executive, Robert Unanue, agreed to appear at the White House rollout of what it called the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, an executive order that promised better access to education and employment for Hispanics.

In the Rose Garden on July 9, Mr. Unanue praised Mr. Trump and compared him to his grandfather, who founded Goya.

“We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder,” Mr. Unanue said. “And that’s what my grandfather did.”

And just like that, a once-beloved brand became anathema in many Latino homes across the United States. People posted videos and photos of themselves clearing out their pantries and tossing cans of Goya beans into the trash. It became a symbol of political resistance to share recipes for Goya product substitutes. “Oh look, it’s the sound of me Googling ‘how to make your own Adobo,’” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York wrote on Twitter, referring to a popular seasoning that Goya sells.

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Credit…Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Almost immediately, Trump loyalists pushed back — filling shopping carts full of Goya products and posting videos of themselves dutifully swallowing Goya beans.

By the time Ivanka Trump tweeted an endorsement of Goya, one thing had become clear: In a polarized country, at a polarized time, the buying of beans had become a political act.

Even as Mr. Trump’s support has cratered among many demographics, he has held on to a small but durable slice of Hispanic voters, many of them in Florida, a state full of Cuban Republicans that is known for razor-thin electoral margins.

Polls consistently show Mr. Trump with an approval rating among Hispanic voters hovering around 25 percent, within the lower end of the range that Republican presidents have attracted for decades. Before the coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy, the Trump campaign repeatedly pointed to the low unemployment rate among Hispanics as an indication that the administration was delivering for the community, a group he has also offended with inflammatory remarks about immigration.

Now Goya has fallen into this boiling pot of politics and anger, a strange turn of events for a company that has prided itself on knowing its customers intimately.

With each wave of Hispanic immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, Goya has added new products to suit their cuisine, and over the years it has distributed millions of pounds of food to pantries after hurricanes and during the pandemic.

The company was founded in 1936 by Mr. Unanue’s grandparents, who moved from the Basque region of Spain to Puerto Rico, and then New York City, where they sold sardines and olive oil from a storefront on Duane Street in Lower Manhattan.

As the company expanded, it changed its name from Unanue & Sons to Goya Foods — reportedly buying rights to its new name for $1 because it was easier to pronounce than “oo-NA-new-way” — and branched into manufacturing. During the mid-1970s, Joseph Unanue, one of the founders’ four sons, took over as chief executive, and the company relocated to New Jersey. By the time he stepped down, the company had established relationships with Walmart and other big grocers and its annual revenue had grown to $1 billion from $20 million.

Some noted that Robert Unanue’s remarks at the White House showcased the glaring disconnect between the wealthy executive whose family hailed from Spain and the largely working-class Latinos who make up his customer base. The harshest critics questioned whether he considered himself Latino.

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Credit…Sergio Flores for The New York Times

The speed and size of the boycott speak to “how raw people in the community feel about the president,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the deputy vice president for policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, a Latino civic engagement organization. She said many Latinos blamed Mr. Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants for inciting discrimination and violence against Latinos, particularly the massacre last summer in El Paso.

For the first time, she said, anxieties about racial discrimination have ranked in the top concerns among Latino voters in surveys. But Mr. Trump’s supporters are betting that this is a winning issue for them and that Americans won’t understand or empathize with the boycott.

The day after the Rose Garden ceremony, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, tweeted: “Goya is a staple of Cuban food. My grandparents ate Goya black beans twice a day for nearly 90 years. And now the Left is trying to cancel Hispanic culture and silence free speech. #BuyGoya.”

And suddenly, the once-beloved Hispanic brand became a cause célèbre on the right.

Mr. Cruz said in an interview that he saw the boycott as an example of “spirit of intolerance.”

“The offense is he dared to say he supported the president,” Mr. Cruz said, adding that “anytime anyone dares disagree from their rigid orthodoxy, they seek to punish, cancel or destroy to the dissenter.”

Mr. Unanue, who has contributed to the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans and worked with Michelle Obama on an anti-obesity initiative, appeared unprepared for the firestorm. Neither he nor Goya officials responded to requests for comment. But Mr. Unanue defended his remarks at the White House, telling The Wall Street Journal that he went there out of respect. “I remain strong in my convictions that I feel blessed with the leadership of our president,” he told the newspaper.

Trump supporters filmed themselves filling shopping carts full of Goya products, relishing in the opportunity to defend a Hispanic businessman and accuse Democrats of being anti-Latino. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative political commentator, shared a video of himself swallowing beans, which he admitted he rarely ate.

A few days later, Mr. Trump circulated a photo of himself sitting in the Oval Office, smiling widely and with his thumbs up, in front of several Goya products, including a package of chocolate wafers and coconut milk.

Responding to questions about whether Ms. Trump’s tweet violated federal law forbidding government employees from using their positions to endorse products, Carolina Hurley, a White House spokeswoman, said the president’s daughter “has every right to express her personal support” for the company.

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Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

“Only the media and the cancel culture movement would criticize Ivanka for showing her personal support for a company that has been unfairly mocked, boycotted and ridiculed for supporting this administration — one that has consistently fought for and delivered for the Hispanic community,” Ms. Hurley said.

Some political scientists said Mr. Trump appeared eager for the free publicity that came by associating himself with a beloved Hispanic brand.

“It’s the Republican version of ‘Hispandering,’” said Geraldo Cadava, a history professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican.” “He’s pandering to Hispanics the same way that politicians have peppered their stump speeches with a few words in Spanish. It’s the same kind of signal.”

Mr. Trump has occasionally made visible efforts to reach Hispanic voters. The Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, which included few details, came during a week in which he also met with Venezuelans who had fled socialism and held an interview with Telemundo, a Spanish-language television station. Mr. Trump spoke in the interview about a “road to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, even as his administration has pledged to fight a Supreme Court decision upholding the Obama-era program that protected them.

It remains to be seen whether Hispanics who do not already support Trump will be swayed by his sudden association with Goya or his attempt to bring Hispanics onto the conservative side of the nation’s long-simmering culture war.

But for a few Latinos, the message resonated.

Alexander Otaola, a Cuban-American in Florida with 105,000 followers on Instagram, issued a video in Spanish that likened the Goya boycott to the destruction of statues and other cultural icons.

“What is Goya in the Latino community? It’s an icon, a statue,” he said in the YouTube video. “The left wants to destroy all icons.”

It is not clear how deeply the boycott has cut into Goya’s bottom line, or whether the impact of the “buycott” has canceled it out. Goya is a privately held company, so its records are not public.

In Jerry’s Supermarket in the predominantly Latino Oak Cliff community in Dallas, Goya products lined the shelves, as usual, and were bought by a steady stream of customers last weekend. In San Antonio’s Alamo Heights community, one cashier said managers of La Michoacana Supermarket have not said they would quit carrying Goya products. Guava paste and Salvadoran pickled salad, among other items, remained on the shelves.

But in Tucson, Ariz., Patrick Robles, a 19-year-old student at the University of Arizona, said his whole family was boycotting Goya products even though the company’s chickpeas had always been perfect for cocido, or Mexican stew.

“It was a punch in the stomach for us,” Mr. Robles said of Mr. Unanue’s comments praising a president who Mr. Robles felt has routinely devalued Latinos. Now, they are going to turn to brands like La Costeña or Rosarita.

But Pamela Ramirez, a 48-year-old Mexican-American small-business consultant in East Los Angeles, said she strongly opposed the Goya boycott. Since there is a large number of Latinos employed by the company, she thinks that boycotting the product could harm her own community. For every one of her Facebook friends who has posted about boycotting the product, Ms. Ramirez bought $10 worth of Goya products and donated them to a food bank, she said.

“You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” she said. “If you don’t, then you’re just part of the problem.”

Contributing reporting were Elda Lizzia Cantú, Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio, Marina Trahan Martinez, Erin Coulehan and David Montgomery. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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Job or Health? Restarting the Economy Threatens to Worsen Economic Inequality

WASHINGTON — Efforts to quickly restart economic activity risk further dividing Americans into two major groups along socioeconomic lines: one that has the power to control its exposure to the coronavirus outbreak and another that is forced to choose between potential sickness or financial devastation.

It is a pick-your-poison fact of the crisis: The pandemic recession has knocked millions of the most economically vulnerable Americans out of work. Rushing to reopen their employers could offer them a financial lifeline, but at a potentially steep cost to their health.

State and federal officials have nowhere near the testing capacity that experts say is needed to track and limit the spread of the virus, and there is no vaccine yet. But states are already reopening, urged on by President Trump, who is eager to restart the United States economy.

That push is likely to exacerbate longstanding inequalities, with workers who are college educated, relatively affluent and primarily white able to continue working from home and minimizing outdoor excursions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Those who are lower paid, less educated and employed in jobs where teleworking is not an option would face a bleak choice if states lift restrictive orders and employers order them back to work: expose themselves to the pandemic or lose their jobs.

That disempowered group is heavily black and Latino, though it includes lower-income white workers as well.

“It’s sad and scary,” said Tina Watson of Holly Hill, S.C., who has seen her hours cut in half at the Wendy’s where she works. Though her income has dropped from that cutback, she is worried about having to interact with customers when the state relaxes limits that have forced the restaurant to operate as drive-through only in recent weeks. “I’m feeling like my life is at risk if they open up our dining,” Ms. Watson said.

A growing share of workers is increasingly stuck with that choice.

The governors of Georgia and South Carolina have begun allowing some businesses to reopen, even though both states continue to see new infections and what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “widespread” community spread of the virus.

On Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia allowed gyms, nail and hair salons, and bowling alleys to begin operating, with restaurants and movie theaters allowed to open on Monday. Colorado, Minnesota, Mississippi and Ohio are also allowing some businesses to start operating again.

Not all businesses will decide to reopen even if they are allowed to; many will choose to stay closed, fearing too few customers to make it worth the cost. That was the situation in parts of Georgia on Friday, as many establishments kept their doors shut. But furloughed workers whose employers recall them to their jobs would in most circumstances lose their unemployment benefits, even if their pay might not return to the levels they were earning before the crisis.

That is particularly difficult for manicurists or wait staff who rely on tips from customers who might not show up. They would also lose out on both regular unemployment benefits and an additional $600 a week from the federal government.

Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial justice advocacy group Color of Change, said Georgia’s governor “has targeted a whole set of businesses where black people both work and patronize.” For those workers and customers, he said, “it is an absolute death sentence.”

“The inequality we’re seeing isn’t unfortunate like a car accident,” Mr. Robinson said. “It’s unjust. It’s being manufactured through a whole set of choices.”

Even though they face higher risks from reopening, a small but meaningful share of financially hurt workers is clamoring to return to work. One in 11 Americans, according to national polling data by the digital research firm Civis Analytics, has lost a job, hours or income — or knows a family member who has — during the pandemic but opposes mandatory lockdowns.

Americans who earn $50,000 a year or less are more than twice as likely to say they or a family member have lost jobs amid the crisis as those who earn more than $150,000, the polling found. Higher earners and whites are far more likely to say they can work from home during the pandemic than lower earners and black and Latino Americans, according to an April poll for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey.

The University of Chicago economists Simon Mongey and Alex Weinberg released a study last month on the Americans who work in jobs that require people to be in close physical proximity (like nail salon workers) or allow little chance to work from home (like fast-food or maintenance workers). They found those workers were disproportionately nonwhite, low income, born outside the United States and not college graduates.

“If it’s a fast reopening,” Mr. Mongey said, “they’re going to be in closer proximity and face higher health consequences.”

Black and Latino Americans have less ability to withstand a prolonged job loss than whites, because they entered the crisis with lower incomes and less wealth. The median black household had just under $18,000 in wealth in 2016, Federal Reserve statistics show, while the median Hispanic household had just under $21,000. The median white household had nearly 10 times more: $171,000.

In 2018, the typical Hispanic household earned three-quarters of what a typical white household earned, according to census data. The typical black household earned three-fifths of what the typical white household earned, and their household income had yet to return to pre-financial-crisis highs.

The virus has only exacerbated that inequality, with minorities suffering both higher death rates and more financial harm.

In New York City and across the country, black and Latino Americans are dying at higher rates from the virus than whites. Economic polling data shows they are also losing their jobs and income to an outsize degree. In Minnesota, the share of black workers filing for unemployment over the last month is nearly 50 percent higher than the share of white workers.

The Civis Analytics polling over the last several weeks found that black and Latino Americans were far more likely than whites to report that they had lost a job or income from the virus, or that it had caused them to miss a rent or mortgage payment or face eviction.

Calculations by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that black and Latino Americans were overrepresented in many “essential” jobs of the pandemic, like grocery store clerks and delivery drivers. In New York City, three-quarters of front-line workers in the pandemic were Americans of color. Nationwide, about one in five black workers were in the health care industry last year, compared with about one in eight white workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.

The risks and damage from the virus are “disproportionately landing on the black and brown workers that are disproportionately in minimum-wage services jobs,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union.

Researchers from the JPMorgan Chase Institute warned this month in a report that the coronavirus recession would hit black and Hispanic families harder in terms of lost income, forcing them to cut back their spending to a greater degree than whites, because black and Hispanic families have fewer savings to fall back on.

“There could be immense and devastating income effects that could be involved with this evolving depression,” said William A. Darity Jr., an economist at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, who is a leading scholar of economic discrimination in the United States. Inequality, he said, “has been horrendous in recent years, and I can only imagine those disparities would get worse.”

Avik Roy, a former adviser to the Republican presidential campaigns of Rick Perry and Marco Rubio, is now the president of a center-right think tank called the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, which this month released a plan to quickly restart much of the economy. It includes reopening schools while carrying out an aggressive system of tracing the contacts of Americans who are infected with the virus and quarantining vulnerable groups and people potentially exposed to the virus.

Mr. Roy said in an interview that the plan was motivated in part by research suggesting that prolonged school closures disproportionately hurt nonwhite and low-income children, who are less likely to have access to educational materials at home that allow them to keep up with more affluent peers.

“The last thing we need at a time of rising inequality is to widen that inequality for our children,” Mr. Roy said. “Upper-income parents are the ones most able to improve educational opportunities for their children. Lower-income parents are not.”

But many economists warn that hasty moves to restart the economy will simply increase the risks for vulnerable workers without generating significant growth. There is widespread concern that consumers will not travel and spend as freely as they had before the pandemic until therapeutic treatments or a vaccine are developed or testing has ramped up to a degree that gives people confidence that they can resume normal activities without risking infection and death.

“If restrictions on social distancing are lifted without adequate supports — testing, tracking and protective gear — in place, many people will choose to stay home if their circumstances will allow them to,” said Heather Boushey, the president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a liberal think tank focused on inequality. “In other words, we will see small-business, low-wage and hourly workers who are most desperate to get back to work as the first to go back, putting themselves and their families in danger.”

Workers who have no choice but to report for duty say they are already confronting those choices every day. Ms. Watson, the Wendy’s worker, said she feared potentially bringing the virus home to her 11-year-old son, Xzaibayan.

Kim Thomas, a home health aide in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area, has begun delivering groceries for an online service to make up for hours she lost because of the outbreak.

In the grocery stores where she shops, Ms. Thomas said in a phone interview, “not everyone is practicing safe distancing. They’re not.”

She said she was concerned for her livelihood in an area that depended heavily on tourism to keep its economy running. But she also feared for her health.

“I’m definitely worried about catching Covid-19,” Ms. Thomas said. “I worry about it every day.”

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.