The directive from public officials is clear: Stay home to keep yourself safe and to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. But not every home is equally safe.
The more people you live with, the higher the risk of transmission. For those who share close quarters with partners, family, or roommates — and that often means using the same bathroom and kitchen — the likelihood of transmission increases if one household member carries the virus.
This simple fact could help explain, in part, the significant racial disparities in the rate of COVID-19 cases.
A recent Seattle Times article brought to light how people of color in King County are at a higher risk of contracting the virus than white people, who have the lowest rate of infection. For Asian people, the risk is a little higher. For other groups, like Black and Hispanic people, it’s much higher.
There are a number of reasons for that disparity, including the fact that people of color are more likely to work service-oriented jobs that put them at greater risk of exposure to the virus.
Household size could be another reason for the higher rate of cases. Indeed, census data shows that people of color are a lot more likely than white people to live in larger, multigenerational households.
In King County, households headed by a white person have the smallest average size of any racial/ethnic group, at 2.27 people. (The averages for all groups are higher for owned homes, which are more likely to include a family, and lower for rented homes, which are more likely to include a person living alone.)
More than two-thirds (69%) of white households in the county include just one or two people. The most common arrangement is two people living together. These households can include married couples or unmarried partners without kids at home, a two-roommate living arrangement, a single parent and child, or other types of two-person family arrangements.
One reason for the smaller household size is age. White people in King County have the highest median age (41.8 years) of any racial/ethnic group. That translates to a higher percentage of seniors, many of whom are empty-nesters.
Large households are much rarer among white households here. Only about 18% include four or more people. And slightly less than 2% of white households are multigenerational, meaning that three or more generations are living together.
At the other end of the spectrum, households headed by a Hispanic person have the largest average size, at 3.07 people. More than half (55%) of Hispanic households include at least three people. Hispanic people, in fact, represent the only racial/ethnic group in the county for whom one- or two-person households are not the majority.
Just one out of five Hispanic people in King County live alone, which is the lowest of any group.
There are a couple of reasons for the bigger average household size, including a larger number of children. Hispanic women have a higher birthrate than white women, although this rate has been rapidly declining in recent years.
There are also cultural and economic reasons. Hispanic households are more likely than white households to have multiple generations living together. In King County, the data shows that 6% of Hispanic households include three or more generations — that’s more than three times the rate for white households.
Extended-family households are much more common in Latin America and other parts of the world than they are in the United States and Canada.
There are practical advantages to having multiple generations sharing a home. Family members can pool financial resources and help with child care or the care of an elderly relative. This can be critically important for lower-income households.
And — no surprise here — there is a wide income gap along racial and ethnic lines in King County. For white and Asian households, the median household income in 2018 was over $100,000. For Hispanic households, it was $67,000, and for Black households, it was $55,000.
But in the era of coronavirus, multigenerational homes present a unique challenge. These households most likely include at least one senior. And older people are, of course, at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the coronavirus.
Data shows that in King County, the rate of death from complications due to COVID-19 is two-and-a half times higher for Hispanic people than it is for white people.