Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships
January 27, 2021
The unemployment rate is very high and millions report that their households did not get enough to eat or are not caught up on rent payments. We are able to track the extent of this hardship thanks to nearly real-time data from several sources on the unfolding economic crisis.
The impacts of the pandemic and the economic fallout have been widespread, but are particularly prevalent among Black, Latino, Indigenous, and immigrant households. These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities — often stemming from structural racism — in education, employment, housing, and health care that the current crisis is exacerbating.
The data below, which we will update periodically, drive home the need for substantial, continued relief measures. The extent and severity of continued hardships like hunger, eviction, and homelessness will depend on whether such relief is robust and reaches those in need, as well as the trajectory of the pandemic and the pace of economic recovery. The implications for children in particular are significant: households with children face especially high hardship rates, which research has shown can have serious effects on children’s long-term health and financial security.
Emerging Data Show High Rates of Hardship
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time weekly data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation. Data from this and other sources, such as unemployment data from Census’ Current Population Survey and the Department of Labor, show that tens of millions of people are out of work and struggling to afford adequate food and pay the rent. The impacts on children are large (see figures 1, 4, and 5).
For more on our methodology and data by state, see tables 1-5 at the end of this document.
Difficulty Getting Enough Food
Data from several sources show a dramatic increase in the number of households struggling to put enough food on the table. Nearly 24 million adults — 11 percent of all adults in the country — reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to Household Pulse Survey data collected January 6–18. This was far above the pre-pandemic rate: a recent survey released by the Agriculture Department found that 3.4 percent of adults reported that their household had “not enough to eat” at some point over the full 12 months of 2019. When asked why, 80 percent said they “couldn’t afford to buy more food,” rather than (or in addition to) non-financial factors such as lack of transportation or safety concerns due to the pandemic.
Adults in households with children were likelier to report that the household didn’t get enough to eat: 15 percent, compared to 9 percent for households without children. (See Figure 1.) And 10 to 15 percent of adults with children reported that their children sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because they couldn’t afford it, well above the pre-pandemic figure. Households typically first scale back on food for adults before cutting back on what children have to eat. (The 10-15 percent range reflects the different ways to measure food hardship in the Household Pulse Survey.)
Also, analysis of more detailed data from the Pulse survey collected December 9–21 shows that between 9 and 12 million children live in a household where children didn’t eat enough because the household couldn’t afford it. These figures are approximations; the Pulse Survey was designed to provide data on adult well-being, not precise counts of children.
Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report that their household did not get enough to eat: 19 percent and 21 percent, respectively, compared to 8 percent of white adults. Adults who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or as multiracial, taken together, were also twice as likely as white adults to report that their household did not get enough to eat, at 17 percent. (See Figure 2.)
Inability to Pay Rent or Mortgage
The Household Pulse data also show that millions are not caught up on their rent or mortgage payments. Unfortunately, there are two concerns with the housing questions. First, the Census Bureau reworded the rent payment question starting with the late-August survey, making the results non-comparable to earlier weeks of the survey. Second, Census at the same time made the entire survey longer, which led more respondents to skip questions toward the end of the survey, including the housing questions. This “non-response” is higher among groups that are younger, have lower levels of education, and identify as Black or Latino — groups that are more likely to struggle to afford rent, due to longstanding inequities often stemming from structural racism in education, employment, and housing. For these reasons, the Pulse data likely understate the number of people struggling to pay rent.
Even with these issues, however, the data indicate that millions are having difficulty paying rent. An estimated 15.1 million adults living in rental housing —1 in 5 adult renters — were not caught up on rent, according to data collected January 6–18. Here, too, renters of color were more likely to report that their household was not caught up on rent: 36 percent of Black renters, 29 percent of Latino renters, and 16 percent of Asian renters said they were not caught up on rent, compared to 12 percent of white renters. The rate was 27 percent for American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial adults taken together. (See Figure 3.)
In addition, 31 percent of renters who are parents or otherwise live with children reported that they were not caught up on rent, compared to 14 percent among adults not living with anyone under age 18. (See Figure 4.)
Children in renter households also face high rates of food hardship. One in 3 children living in rental housing live in a household that didn’t have enough to eat, according to data for December 9–21 (the latest detailed data that allow us to make these estimates). And more than 4 in 10 children living in rental housing live in a household that either isn’t getting enough to eat or is not caught up on rent. (See Figure 5.)
While households that don’t rent their homes but have mortgage payments typically have higher incomes than renters, they, too, can face difficulties, especially if they have lost their jobs or seen their incomes fall significantly. An estimated 10.3 million adults are in a household that is not caught up in its mortgage payment.
Difficulty Covering Household Expenses
Since late August, the Household Pulse Survey has provided data on the overall number of adults struggling to cover usual household expenses such as food, rent or mortgage, car payments, medical expenses, or student loans. More than 80 million adults — 35 percent of all adults in the country — reported it was somewhat or very difficult for their household to cover usual expenses in the past seven days, according to data collected January 6–18. While we don’t have comparable data from before the pandemic, the data noted above on rising levels of food hardship over pre-pandemic rates suggest that economic insecurity has increased.
Adults in households with children were more likely to report difficulty paying for usual expenses: 43 percent, compared to 30 percent for households without children. Financial hardship can have serious effects on children’s long-term health and education, research shows.
In addition, Black and Latino adults reported difficulty covering expenses at higher rates: 51 percent for each group, compared to 33 percent for Asian adults and 28 percent for white adults. (See Figure 6.) Although the survey does not provide data for other individual racial groups, 48 percent of American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial adults taken together reported difficulty paying for usual expenses.
An estimated 48 percent of children live in households that have trouble covering usual expenses, according to our analysis of detailed data from the Pulse survey collected December 9–21. They include 66 percent of children in Black households, 58 percent of children in Latino households, 39 percent of children in white households, and 36 percent of children in Asian households. (The Pulse survey asks the race of the adult respondent, not the children.)
Unemployment Is High, With Job Losses Concentrated in Low-Paid Industries
The unemployment rate jumped in April 2020 to a level not seen since the 1930s — and still stood at 6.7 percent in December. Some 9.9 percent of Black workers and 9.3 percent of Latino workers were unemployed in December, compared to 6.0 percent of white workers. Unemployment has also risen faster among workers who were born outside the United States (this includes individuals who are now U.S. citizens) than U.S.-born workers. Changes in unemployment going forward will likely heavily depend on both how well the nation does in controlling the spread of the virus and the steps policymakers take to provide effective stimulus that boosts overall demand for goods and services.
The majority of jobs lost in the crisis have been in industries that pay low average wages, with the lowest-paying industries accounting for 30 percent of all jobs but 58 percent of the jobs lost from February to December, the latest month of Labor Department employment data. Jobs in low-paying industries were down more than twice as much between February and December 2020 (11.3 percent) as jobs in medium-wage industries (4.9 percent) and nearly four times as much as in high-wage industries (3.0 percent). (See Figure 7.)
Data from the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey released December 9 provide more detail on jobless workers and their family members:
- Some 25 million people either met the official definition of “unemployed” (meaning they actively looked for work in the last four weeks or were on temporary layoff) or lived with an unemployed family member in November. This figure includes 6 million children.
- The official definition of “unemployed” leaves out some workers sidelined by the crisis, such as those who are absent from their jobs without pay and jobless workers who want a job but aren’t currently looking for one. These include owners of businesses shut by the pandemic and people who have health concerns, are sick or caring for a sick relative, or need to care for their children because school or child care is closed. If we also include the family members of these workers, as many as 48 million people, or 1 in 7 people in the country, live in families with a sidelined worker.
State-by-State Food, Housing, and Employment Hardship Data
Data by state show that hardship is widespread. The following tables provide state-level data on:
- the share of adults reporting that their household didn’t have enough to eat (Table 1);
- the share of adults saying children in their household were not eating enough because they couldn’t afford enough (Table 1);
- the increase in SNAP caseloads (Table 2);
- the share of adults not caught up on rent (Table 3);
- the share of adults saying their household had difficulty paying for their usual expenses (Table 4); and
- the three-month moving average unemployment rate and recent jobless claim data (Table 5).
For data from the Pulse survey we average data collected November 25–December 7 and December 9–21 to improve the accuracy of the state estimates.
Differences in Pulse hardship rates between states may reflect sampling error, so we suggest not drawing strong conclusions from modest differences between states. The data do show, however, that high levels of hardship are widespread across the country.
Difficulty Getting Enough Food
The Pulse survey asks adult respondents if their household did not have enough to eat and if children in the household were not eating enough because the household couldn’t afford it.
|High Shares of Households Report Difficulty Getting Enough Food|
Among adults; data collected November 25–December 21.
How to read this table: In the United States, over 28 million adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. This represents 13 percent of all adults in the country. Nearly 14 million adults living with children reported that “the children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” This represents 17 percent of adults living with children.
|Adults Reporting That Household Didn’t Have Enough to Eat||Adults Reporting That Children in Household Weren’t Eating
Couldn’t Afford Enough
|State||Number||As a Percent of Adults||Number||As a Percent of Adults Living with Children|
|District of Columbia||54,000||11%||36,000||25%|
Table 2 shows the number of SNAP participants based on recent data available for each state through August compared to February 2020, the last month before the economic effects of the pandemic hit. Available data suggest that 6-7 million more people have applied and been approved for benefits since February, a 17 percent increase nationally. This rise is unprecedented: at the onset of the Great Recession it took 17 months to add this number of people to SNAP. While SNAP participation in most states is still substantially lower than during the peak months after the Great Recession, the increase so far due to COVID-19 has been rapid.
Based on this state data the number of people nationally participating in SNAP appears to have leveled at about 43 million over May through August, though in some states over the summer it continued to grow and in others it fell. The differences in the trends in caseloads across states reflect multiple factors including:
- Differences in job losses across the months of the pandemic and the degree to which businesses were operating;
- How quickly states adapted their SNAP application processes to almost entirely remote communications (i.e., online and telephone) and the degree to which they made use of flexibilities offered to help them manage their workloads;
- How many people received unemployment insurance since the pandemic began in the state and how quickly states processed applications for unemployment insurance (UI) in the spring and early summer (which would have provided income to people who otherwise might have qualified for SNAP);
The slower growth over the summer months may reflect states taking higher income from UI benefits into account (for households that were approved for UI in late April or May), in addition to increased earnings from the economy partially reopening in some places. But UI income fell substantially as a result of the expiration of the temporary $600-per-week federal UI supplement at the end of July, which may have resulted in more SNAP applications in August and September. SNAP caseloads also shrink when the economy is strong, as they did in the years leading up to the COVID-19-related downturn.
|The Number of SNAP Participants Increased Substantially in Almost All States|
|Preliminary, subject to change. From state- or USDA-reported data, as of October 21, 2020, in thousands|
|State||February 2020||April 2020||May 2020||June 2020||July 2020||August 2020||Percent change:|
|February to May (or April if May data not available)||February to August (or July if August data not available)|
|District of Columbia *||109||118||9%|
|Total these states (or territories)||36,868
|% U.S. participants in these states||100%||99.9%||98%||85%||85%||73%|
|Extrapolated to U.S.||36,868||41,400||43,200||43,800b||42,700b||43,000b|
Not Caught Up on Rent
Table 3 shows the estimated number of adults whose household was not caught up on rent by state. The Census Bureau reworded the Pulse survey’s rent payment question starting with the late-August survey, so these rent hardship figures results are not comparable to data from earlier weeks of the Pulse survey. In addition, Census at the same time made the entire survey longer, which led more respondents to skip questions toward the end of the survey, including the housing questions. Non-response is higher among groups that are younger, have lower levels of education, and identify as Black or Latino — groups that are more likely to struggle to afford rent, due to longstanding inequities that often stem from structural racism in education, employment, and housing. Therefore, the Pulse data likely understate the number of people struggling to pay rent.
|1 in 6 Renters Nationwide Not Caught Up on Rent|
|Among adults in rental housing; data collected November 25–December 21|
|Not Caught Up On Rent|
|District of Columbia||60,000||21%|
Difficulty Covering Usual Household Expenses
The Pulse survey asks adult respondents if their household had difficulty paying for usual expenses such as food, rent or mortgage, car payments, medical expenses, or student loans in the last seven days. Table 4 shows the estimated number and percent of adults reporting that it was somewhat or very difficult for their household to pay for their usual expenses in the last seven days.
|1 in 3 Adults Nationwide Has Difficulty Covering Usual Household Expenses|
|Among adults; data collected November 25–December 21|
|Difficulty Covering Usual Household Expenses|
|District of Columbia||146,000||28%|
Table 5 provides state-by-state data on the unemployment rate over the October-December period and data on ongoing unemployment benefit claims.
Unemployment in most states has been highly elevated since April, as has the number of people claiming unemployment insurance benefits.
|Unemployment, Jobless Claims High Across the Country|
|States||Unemployment rate (October-December average)a||Current jobless benefits claims for week ending January 2b|
|District of Columbia||7.9||60,000|
 Federal surveys generally ask respondents whether they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” This report uses the term “Latino.”
 Brynne Keith-Jennings, “Food Need Very High Compared to Pre-Pandemic Levels, Making Relief Imperative,” CBPP, September 10, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/food-need-very-high-compared-to-pre-pandemic-levels-making-relief-imperative.
 The latest Pulse survey estimates that 10.5 million adults live in households not caught up on rent. To adjust for non-response in the survey, we apply the share not caught up on rent (20.7 percent) to the total number of adult renters (73 million) in the March 2020 Current Population Survey to calculate an adjusted estimate.
 The latest Pulse survey estimates that 8.7 million adults are in households not caught up on their mortgage. To adjust for non-response in the survey, we apply the share not caught up on their mortgage (10.3 percent) to the total number of adult homeowners (about 100 million) in the March 2020 Current Population Survey to calculate an adjusted estimate.
 Ajay Chaudry and Christopher Wimer, “Poverty is Not Just an Indicator: The Relationship Between Income, Poverty, and Child Well-Being,” Academic Pediatrics, Vol. 16 Issue 3 (April 1, 2016), https://www.academicpedsjnl.net/article/S1876-2859(15)00383-6/fulltext.
 The Families First Act, the first large-scale relief bill enacted in March, allowed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide states substantial flexibility in program operations to help them manage their workloads to focus on processing new applications — flexibility that USDA had begun to phase out, but that the Continuing Resolution recently extended. “States Are Using Much-Needed Temporary Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges,” CBPP, updated August 6, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/most-states-are-using-new-flexibility-in-snap-to-respond-to-covid-19; “States are Using Much-Needed Temporary Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges,” CBPP, Updated regularly.