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New Survey Shows Wide Gaps in Who Is Getting Vaccinated

Wealthy and more educated Americans are more likely to be vaccinated; complex distribution systems can hinder efforts to vaccinate the most vulnerable

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The complex distribution process of the vaccine has privileged more educated individuals with better healthcare, and communication efforts have not succeeded in closing these gaps.”

James Druckman
IPR political scientist


 A Des Moines public school employee gets a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on February 6.

In his March 11 primetime address, President Biden pledged that all adults over the age of 18 would have access to a COVID vaccine by May 1.

Despite the progress in vaccinating more than 64 million Americans to date, a new national survey of more than 21,000 Americans underscores that wide disparities still exist in terms of who has been able to get a vaccine so far. It also pinpoints how a complex system of vaccine distribution cuts off the people best placed to convince more vulnerable Americans to get one.

The researchers from Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern, and Rutgers conducted the survey between February 5 and March 1. They find that education was the biggest predictor of who had already been vaccinated: 29% of respondents with graduate degrees had already received their COVID shots versus just 9% of those with a high school diploma or less, and the figures were similar for vaccine hesitancy (8% vs. 30%).

Wealthy Americans were also more likely to have received a vaccination; 24% of those making more than $150,000 were in this case, while only 9% of those making less than $25,000 had. Those figures for income became even starker when the researchers broke them down by age.

“We anticipated an income gap but not one that large,” said IPR political scientist James Druckman, who is one of researchers leading the survey. “It is extremely unfortunate given those in lower income brackets have already faced more hardships and often cannot afford the financial costs of getting COVID-19 much less the health toll. It will be important to figure out if the gap stems from access, knowledge, or other forces.”

 Disparities in the Numbers of Older Americans Being Vaccinated

In almost all states, those 65 or older have been prioritized for vaccines. While nearly half of those 65 or older (48%) who earn more than $150,000 have been vaccinated, only 28% of the those making less than $15,000 were. The percentages of older Americans who are vaccine hesitant or resistant follow similar trends.

Where one lives also reveals differences in vaccination rates and views on it. Rural Americans were slightly less likely to have received a vaccination at 12% versus 15% for those in cities. But 29% of rural inhabitants stated they would not get a vaccine versus just 16% of city dwellers. Suburbanites also had higher rates of vaccine resistance at 22%.

Vaccine resistance also varies greatly by state: At the low end, only 9% of Massachusetts residents say they would refuse to get a vaccine, while at the high end, 33% of Oklahomans and North Dakotans say they would not get one.

Unfortunately, the researchers point out that the people best positioned to convince lower-income, less-educated, and rural individuals who are more hesitant to get their shots have been essentially “cut out of the loop.” That’s their doctor.

“The complex distribution process of the vaccine has privileged more educated individuals with better healthcare, and communication efforts have not succeeded in closing these gaps,” Druckman said.

While the rates of those who say they would never get a vaccine has started to come down somewhat from the highs seen in December 2020, they still remain relatively high for certain vulnerable groups, like the poorest Americans, with nearly a quarter of them saying they would not get vaccinated.

 'The Importance of Engaging with the Medical Community'

A previous survey conducted by Druckman and his colleagues earlier this year showed that those most resistant or most skeptical of vaccines were more likely to be convinced to get vaccinated by messages from their doctors and scientists than those from famous political figures, athletes, or actors.

“This goes back to the importance of engaging with the medical community,” Druckman said. “But a challenge here is that those with lower incomes often do not have regular doctors and so that cuts off a potentially key communicator.” 

Other demographic factors that predicted whether people would be vaccinated or how skeptical or resistant they are to getting a vaccine include a person’s race and ethnicity, gender, and political party affiliation. Key findings covering these demographics are that:

  • Asian Americans (17%) and Whites (16%) have the highest vaccination rates, and African Americans (12%) and Hispanics (9%) the lowest.
    • Asian Americans have by far the lowest levels of vaccine resistance (10%), with Whites (21%), Hispanics (22%), and African Americans (26%) all at far higher levels.
  • Democrats and Republicans have similar vaccination rates (17% vs. 16%), but only 9% of Independents have been vaccinated.
    • Independents (31%) and Republicans (30%) have far higher levels of vaccine resistance than Democrats (11%).
  • Women are less likely to be vaccinated than men (13% vs. 17%), and more likely to be vaccine resistant (25% vs. 18%).

Additionally, the researchers conducted a series of multivariable analyses that compared key factors involved in terms of vaccination and resistance rates, including age, education, income, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, and geography. By starting with a baseline profile and then shifting just one factor—say, from having a high school diploma to having a college degree—they show how these factors are all statistically significant in predicting a person’s likelihood of getting vaccinated.

Read the complete report here.

James Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Associate Director. Previous surveys can be found here.  

Photo credit: P. Roeder, Flickr.

Funding for the reports came from the National Science, Knight, and the Russell Sage foundations. Data collection was partially supported by Amazon. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in the studies are those of the authors and do not reflect the funders’ views.

Published: March 12, 2021.