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Examining inequality in the time cost of waiting


Time spent waiting for services represents unproductive time lost while fulfilling needs. We use time diary data from the nationally representative American Time Use Survey to estimate the difference between high- and low-income people in time spent waiting for basic services. Relative to high-income people, low-income people are one percentage point more likely to wait on an average day, are three percentage points more likely to wait when using services, spend an additional minute waiting for services on a typical day and spend 12 more minutes waiting when waiting occurs. The unconditional gap in waiting time suggests low-income people spend at least six more hours per year waiting for services than high-income people. The income gap in waiting time cannot be explained by differences in family obligations, demographics, education, work time or travel time. Further, high-income Black people experience the same higher average wait times as low-income people regardless of race.

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Fig. 1: Marginal effect of income on time spent waiting for medical services for self or HH child (in minutes; T T > 0; weighted).
Fig. 2: Marginal effect of income on time spent waiting while shopping (in minutes; T T > 0; weighted).
Fig. 3: Marginal effect of income on probability of any waiting for services by race and ethnicity, with controls (weighted).
Fig. 4: Marginal effect of income on time spent waiting for services by race and ethnicity, with controls (in minutes; T T > 0; weighted).
Fig. 5: Marginal effect of income on time spent waiting for services by time of day, weekdays (in minutes; T T > 0; weighted).

Data availability

The ATUS data used in our analysis is publicly available and the multi-year microdata files used in our analysis can be found at The poverty thresholds used in the imputation-based robustness check in Supplemental Information can be found at The Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey (also used in the imputation-based robustness check in Supplemental Information can be found at IPUMS (

Code availability

Data files and the file for replicating the analysis is available on GitHub at


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Authors and Affiliations



S.B.H. contributed to the conceptualization, data analysis, writing and methods of the work. K.V. contributed to the conceptualization, writing, background research, and editing and review of the work.

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Correspondence to Stephen B. Holt.

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Nature Human Behaviour thanks Chiara Monfardini, Lyndall Strazdins and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–12, Discussion and Tables 1–15.

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Holt, S.B., Vinopal, K. Examining inequality in the time cost of waiting. Nat Hum Behav 7, 545–555 (2023).

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