An analysis of recent survey data highlights how material hardship, such as food insecurity and problems paying utility and medical bills, changed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and provides insights into its disproportionate impact on people who lost jobs and incomes.
Approximately 9 million fewer adults were employed in December 2020 than in December 2019 after the pandemic triggered a sharp economic recession. Nearly all this decline occurred among hourly workers. Congress responded to the crisis with several relief packages, including the American Rescue Plan (ARP), to help families pay for food, housing, utilities, health care, and other necessary expenses.
Researchers from the Urban Institute examined survey data from the December 2020 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted families’ abilities to meet their basic needs. The analysis also looks at the role that safety net programs play in mitigating the worst consequences of the recession.
Adults reporting food insecurity and problems paying utility and medical bills declined during the first year of the pandemic despite a steep drop in employment.
The authors note, however, that this decline conceals the pandemic’s unequal effect on people who lost jobs, as they were more likely to report hardships.
Adults whose families lost jobs during the pandemic were twice as likely to report food insecurity, nearly three times as likely to report problems paying utility bills, and nearly four times as likely to report problems paying the rent or mortgage.
The findings also show that many families turned to safety net programs and other relief measures (e.g., unemployment insurance, Medicaid, SNAP, etc.) to replace lost income and cover basic needs during the pandemic.
The survey, which provides the first national estimates of these changes since before the pandemic, offers policymakers timely data to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the U.S. safety net. The authors state that if policies like the recently enacted ARP became permanent, they could serve as the foundation to help people meet basic needs in an increasingly unequal economy.
About the Urban Institute
The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.
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