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Hardship Remains High, Latest Census Data Show

Hardship remains high across the board although some measures halted their upward trend in early January, Census data released today show. Millions of people report that their household didn’t get enough to eat, isn’t caught up on rent, or struggled to cover usual expenses. While the relief package enacted in December amidst surging hardship and a stalling recovery will provide important help to many people, another substantial stimulus and relief package is needed to address ongoing hardship and extend key provisions of the December package that will expire in coming months.

Our updated tracker features new data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey showing the pandemic’s ongoing impact. According to the latest Pulse data, collected January 6-18:

  • Nearly 24 million adults — 11 percent of all adults — reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days.
  • An estimated 15.1 million adults living in rental housing — 1 in 5 adult renters — weren’t caught up on rent.
  • More than 80 million adults — 35 percent of all adults — reported it was somewhat or very difficult for their household to cover usual expenses in the last seven days.

Hardship rates are particularly high among families with children, raising serious concerns about the long-term consequences of persistent hardship for children’s health and their academic outcomes. Food hardship among adults living with children is four times above pre-pandemic rates, available data suggest. Between 9 and 12 million children live in a household where children didn’t eat enough because the household couldn’t afford it, according to our analysis of detailed Pulse data collected December 9-21 (the latest available for this measure). Nearly half of all children live in households that had trouble covering usual expenses. And more than 4 in 10 children living in rental housing live in a household that either isn’t getting enough to eat or isn’t caught up on rent.

Weekly changes in hardship were mixed in January, as some but not all measures showed signs of interrupting their end-of-year upward surge. The share of adults who reported that their household lacked enough food edged down to 11.3 percent in early January (from 13.7 percent in late December), after generally rising since late September, but it’s too soon to know whether this marks a new trend. Moreover, the share of adults not caught up on rent remained statistically unchanged in early January and rose among households with children. And, while the survey showed a drop in the number of households with difficulty paying for usual expenses, data quality problems made it hard to tell whether this trend was real. All three measures of hardship remain significantly above late-September levels.

The December relief bill will provide critical help to many households, but it also has gaps, and many important relief measures are slated to expire prematurely. With payroll employment barely halfway back to its pre-crisis level as of December, economic hardship will likely last well into 2021. “The recovery in economic activity and employment has moderated in recent months with weakness concentrated in the sectors most adversely affected by the pandemic,” the Federal Reserve said in its January 26 monetary policy statement. “[I]t’s likely to take some time for substantial further progress to be achieved,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at his post-meeting news conference.

President Biden’s emergency relief proposal includes key investments to address hardship. It would extend important expansions in jobless benefits, which otherwise will expire in mid-March, that would help many pay their bills. It also includes provisions designed to address food and housing hardship. It would extend the SNAP benefit increase, now scheduled to end in June, through at least September; SNAP benefits improve food security and provide high bang-for-the-buck stimulus. It also includes investments to help the WIC nutrition program reach more of those eligible. (The President’s January 22 executive order includes several other measures to reduce food hardship, such as boosting Pandemic-EBT benefits for children and improving emergency SNAP benefits so they reach the households most in need.) In addition, the proposal’s increase in rental assistance funding, along with the President’s recent extension of the federal eviction moratorium and additional funding to assist people experiencing homelessness, would help millions keep a roof overhead and limit the virus’s spread.