Real-time inequality and the welfare state in motion: evidence from COVID-19 in Spain

Authors: Oriol Aspachs, Ruben Durante, Alberto Graziano, Josep Mestres, José García-Montalvo and Marta Reynal-Querol

Economic Policy, Vol. 37, No 10, 165-199, January, 2022

G. Montalvo and Marta Reynal-Querol?>Official statistics on economic inequality are only available at low frequency and with considerable delay. This makes it challenging to assess the impact on inequality of fast-unfolding crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, and to rapidly evaluate and tailor policy responses. We propose a new methodology to track income inequality at high frequency using anonymized data from bank records for over three million account holders in Spain. Using this approach, we analyse how inequality evolved between February and November 2020 (compared to the same months of 2019). We first show that the wage distribution in our data matches very closely that from official labour surveys. We then document that, in the absence of government intervention, inequality would have increased dramatically, mainly due to job losses and wage cuts experienced by low-wage workers. The increase in pre-transfer inequality was especially pronounced among the young and the foreign-born, and in regions more dependent on services. Public transfers and unemployment insurance schemes were effective at providing a safety net to the most affected segments of the population and at offsetting most of the increase in inequality. Increased inequality is primarily driven by differential changes in employment rate. Indeed, using individual-level regressions, we find that, over the course of the pandemic, the probability of being employed decreased drastically for workers in the lower part of the pre-COVID wage distribution, young cohorts and foreign-born.

This paper originally appeared as Barcelona School of Economics Working Paper 1202