The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Straining Families’ Abilities to Afford Basic Needs

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Author(s): Urban Institute

Published: Apr. 28, 2020

Report Intro/Brief:
“As it confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, the US faces what could be its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. A successful government response to the economic consequences of the pandemic is critical for sustaining families’ health and well-being and allowing families to remain housed as major sectors of the economy remain closed. The success of this response will partly depend on its effectiveness in reaching the families hardest hit by the loss of jobs and incomes. As relief is distributed, policymakers will need timely data on families’ financial and material well-being to evaluate and improve current efforts and inform new legislation.

This brief uses new data from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey, a nationally representative survey of nonelderly adults conducted between March 25 and April 10, 2020, to examine the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on families’ employment and abilities to meet basic needs, as well as racial/ethnic and family income–related disparities in the economic impact of the pandemic.

Low-Income and Hispanic Families the Hardest Hit

As of late March/early April, we find the following:

  • Just over 4 in 10 nonelderly adults (41.5 percent) reported that their families have lost jobs, work hours, or work-related income because of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Job and income losses are widespread but more prevalent among the families of low-income and Hispanic adults.
  • In response to the crisis, 30.6 percent of adults reported that their families reduced spending on food, 43.1 percent put off major purchases, and 27.9 percent drew down savings or increased credit card debt. Among adults in families that lost work or income, 46.5 percent reduced spending on food, 58.1 percent put off major purchases, and 43.9 percent tapped savings or increased credit card debt.
  • Low-income, Hispanic, and black adults were most likely to report that their families reduced spending on food, delayed major purchases, or used savings or increased credit card debt.
  • As families cope with new financial challenges, many have experienced serious material hardships. Nearly one-third of adults (31.0 percent) reported that their families could not pay the rent, mortgage, or utility bills, were food insecure, or went without medical care because of the cost during the last 30 days. Among adults in families that lost work or income, the share experiencing these material hardships was 42.0 percent over the same time period.
  • Over two-thirds (68.6 percent) of adults with family incomes below the federal poverty level and over 45 percent of black and Hispanic adults reported that their families experienced one or more of these hardships in the last 30 days.
  • Looking ahead to the next month, adults are most likely to be worried about being able to work enough hours (38.5 percent) and pay their debts (33.1 percent), and more than one-quarter worry about paying for housing, utility, and medical costs and having enough food to eat.”

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