Measurement
How Did COVID-19 and Stabilization Policies Affect Spending and Employment? A New Real-Time Economic Tracker Based on Private Sector Data
Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Michael Stepner, The Opportunity Insights Team
Working Paper
May 2020

We build a publicly available platform that tracks economic activity at a granular level in real-time using anonymized data from private companies. We report weekly statistics on consumer spending, business revenues, employment rates, and other key indicators disaggregated by county, industry, and income group. Using these data, we study the mechanisms through which COVID-19 affected the economy by analyzing heterogeneity in its impacts across geographic areas and income groups. We first show that high-income individuals reduced spending sharply in mid-March 2020, particularly in areas with high rates of COVID-19 infection and in sectors that require physical interaction. This reduction in spending greatly reduced the revenues of businesses that cater to high-income households in person, notably small businesses in affluent ZIP codes. These businesses laid off most of their low-income employees, leading to a surge in unemployment claims in affluent areas. Building on this diagnostic analysis, we use event study designs to estimate the causal effects of policies aimed at mitigating the adverse impacts of COVID. State-ordered reopenings of economies have little impact on local employment. Stimulus payments to low-income households increased consumer spending sharply, but had modest impacts on employment in the short run, perhaps because very little of the increased spending flowed to businesses most affected by the COVID-19 shock. Paycheck Protection Program loans have also had little impact on employment at small businesses. These results suggest that traditional macroeconomic tools – stimulating aggregate demand or providing liquidity to businesses – may have diminished capacity to restore employment when consumer spending is constrained by health concerns. During a pandemic, it may be more fruitful to mitigate economic hardship through social insurance. More broadly, this analysis illustrates how real-time economic tracking using private sector data can help rapidly identify the origins of economic crises and facilitate ongoing evaluation of policy impacts.