Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships
Joblessness remains 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 ongoing 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 American Rescue Plan Act, enacted on March 11, is projected to dramatically begin reducing poverty and narrowing disparities by race. Any reduction in hardship, particularly among children, would be a hopeful step for the country. Households with children face especially high hardship rates and considerable evidence suggests that reducing childhood hardship and poverty would yield improvements in education and health, higher productivity and earnings, less incarceration, and other lasting benefits to children and society.
Census Bureau Data Show High Rates of Hardship
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time 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. Some 18 million adults — 9 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 March 17-29.
By contrast, 3.4 percent of adults reported their household had “not enough to eat” at some point over the full 12 months of 2019, according to our analysis of a separate Census Bureau survey conducted in December 2019. (Methodological differences between the two surveys explain some, but not all, of the increase. When asked why, 76 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: 11 percent, compared to 7 percent for households without children. (See Figure 1.) And 7 to 13 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 7-13 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 March 17-29 shows that between 5 and 9 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: 16 percent each, compared to 6 percent of white adults. Adults who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or as multiracial, taken together, were twice as likely as white adults to report that their household did not get enough to eat, at 12 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 2020 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 10.7 million adults living in rental housing — 15 percent of adult renters — were not caught up on rent, according to data collected March 17-29. Here, too, renters of color were more likely to report that their household was not caught up on rent: 22 percent of Black renters, 20 percent of Latino renters, and 19 percent of Asian renters said they were not caught up on rent, compared to 9 percent of white renters. The rate was 18 percent for American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial adults taken together. (See Figure 3.)
In addition, 21 percent of renters who are parents or otherwise live with children reported that they were not caught up on rent, compared to 10 percent among adults not living with anyone under age 18. (See Figure 4.)
Children in renter households also face high rates of food hardship. Over 1 in 5 children living in rental housing live in a household that didn’t have enough to eat, according to data for March 17-29. And 1 in 3 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 9.5 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. Some 67 million adults — 29 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 March 17-29.
Adults in households with children were more likely to report difficulty paying for usual expenses: 34 percent, compared to 26 percent for adults without children. Financial hardship can have serious effects on children’s long-term health and education, research shows.
In addition, Latino and Black adults reported difficulty covering expenses at higher rates: 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively, compared to 27 percent for Asian adults and 23 percent for white adults. (See Figure 6.) The rate was 38 percent for American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial adults taken together.
An estimated 35 percent of children live in households that have trouble covering usual expenses, according to our analysis of detailed data from the Pulse survey collected March 17-29. They include 49 percent of children in Latino households, 48 percent of children in Black households, 28 percent of children in Asian households, and 26 percent of children in white 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 6.0 percent in March 2021. Some 9.6 percent of Black workers and 7.9 percent of Latino workers were unemployed in March, compared to 5.4 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 56 percent of the jobs lost from February 2020 to March 2021, the latest month of Labor Department employment data. Jobs in low-paying industries were down more than twice as much between February 2020 and March 2021 (9.3 percent) as jobs in medium-wage industries (4.4 percent) and more than three times as much as in high-wage industries (2.7 percent). (See Figure 7.)
Data from the Census Bureau’s basic monthly Current Population Survey released April 7, 2021 provide more detail on unemployed 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 March. This figure includes over 6 million children.
The official definition of “unemployed” leaves out many workers deprived of pay amid the pandemic, including some 3.7 million workers in March who did not look for work “because of the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the Labor Department. The official definition also omits over 600,000 workers who reported that they had a job but that they were absent from work without pay and lost pay in the last four weeks “because their employer closed or lost business due to the coronavirus pandemic,” we calculate.
When family members are considered, some 35 million people in March, including close to 9 million children, lived in a family where at least one adult did not have paid work in the last week because of unemployment or the pandemic, we estimate.
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 March 3-15 and March 17-29 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 March 3-29.How to read this table: In the United States, some 20 million adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. This represents 10 percent of all adults in the country. Some 11 million adults living with children reported that “the children were not eating enough because we just couldn’t afford enough food.” This represents 14 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
Enough Because Household Couldn’t Afford Enough
|State||Number||As a Percent of Adults||Number||As a Percent of Adults Living with Children|
|District of Columbia||43,000||9%||24,000||17%|
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 2020 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.
|Over 1 in 7 Renters Nationwide Not Caught Up on Rent|
|Among adults in rental housing; data collected March 3-29|
|Not Caught Up On Rent|
|District of Columbia||42,000||15%|
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.
|About 3 in 10 Adults Nationwide Have Difficulty Covering Usual Household Expenses|
|Among adults; data collected March 3-29|
|Difficulty Covering Usual Household Expenses|
|District of Columbia||143,000||28%|
Table 5 provides state-by-state data on the unemployment rate over the January-March 2021 period and data on ongoing unemployment benefit claims.
Unemployment in most states has been highly elevated since April 2020, as has the number of people claiming unemployment insurance benefits.
|Unemployment, Jobless Claims High Across Most of the Country|
|States||Unemployment rate (January-March average)a||Current jobless benefits claims for week ending April 3b|
|District of Columbia||8.1||42,000|
 Federal surveys generally ask respondents whether they are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” This report uses the term “Latino.”
 The bulk of presently available evidence suggests that more families are struggling to meet their needs in the pandemic, including:
- Studies estimating substantial increases in childhood food insecurity from researchers at Northwestern University and the Brookings Institution.
- A year-over-year rise in requests for help with food (up 97 percent), shelter (42 percent), and utilities (31 percent), according to an analysis of calls to the United Way’s “211” help line in 29 states.
- A 55 percent rise in the number of people using food banks since before the pandemic, according to the food bank network Feeding America.
- The combined amount by which customers are estimated to have fallen behind on electricity bills nearly doubled from $8 billion to $15.8 billion between December 31, 2019 and one year later, according to state energy assistance program directors.
Although one Urban Institute report finds that food and other material hardship declined in 2020, it also suggests that food insecurity is more widespread than most other reports suggest (affecting 20.5 percent of adults in 2020 and 23.9 percent in 2019, more than double the rate in Census Bureau data for 2019). The same data source also shows nearly a 50 percent rise in the number of adults using charitable food (such as food banks or free meals) in the past 12 months, reaching nearly in 1 in 5 adults in December 2020.
 Differences between online and other (in-person or telephone) surveys explain some of the difference between food hardship rates in the Pulse survey and in the December 2019 survey (the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement). One comparison found that, before the pandemic, respondents in an online survey were 38 percent more likely to report food insecurity than comparable respondents in a different survey with a live interviewer.
 The Pulse survey does not provide data for these groups individually.
 The latest Pulse survey estimates that 7.2 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 (14.7 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 8.1 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 (9.5 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.