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In this brief, The Urban Institute assesses how material hardship changed during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, between December 2019 and December 2020. Using data from the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, the analysis provides the first probability-based national survey estimates of changes in hardship from a prepandemic baseline. Despite a steep drop in employment, we find the share of nonelderly adults reporting food insecurity and problems paying utility and medical bills declined between 2019 and 2020. However, this average change obscures the substantial hardships among families who lost work during the pandemic.

  • About 9 million fewer adults were employed in December 2020 than in December 2019, and nearly all of the decline occurred among hourly workers.
  • Despite substantial job losses, the share of adults reporting material hardships in the past 12 months fell between December 2019 and December 2020, with significant declines in food insecurity (from 23.9 percent to 20.5 percent), utility shutoffs (from 3.8 percent to 2.6 percent), and problems paying medical bills (from 18.8 percent to 14.9 percent).
  • Average improvements in material hardship conceal wide disparities in well-being in 2020. Compared with adults whose family employment was unaffected by the pandemic, adults whose families lost jobs during the pandemic were twice as likely to report food insecurity (33.2 percent versus 16.0 percent), nearly three times as likely to report problems paying utility bills (20.2 percent versus 7.2 percent), and nearly four times as likely to report problems paying the rent or mortgage (20.3 percent versus 5.3 percent).
  • Adults whose families did not lose jobs but experienced furloughs, had work hours reduced, or lost income were also more likely than adults whose family employment was unaffected by the pandemic to report food insecurity (23.1 percent versus 16.0 percent), problems paying the rent or mortgage (11.9 percent versus 5.3 percent), and other hardships.
  • To replace lost income and help cover their basic needs, many families have turned to safety net programs and other relief measures. Three-quarters of adults whose families lost jobs during the pandemic (75.5 percent) and about half of adults whose families experienced furloughs, had work hours reduced, or lost income (49.5 percent) reported their families received support from unemployment insurance, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, rental assistance, or charitable food programs in 2020.

The seemingly contradictory changes in employment and material hardship likely reflect both the pandemic’s exceptionally unequal impacts and the strong federal response. The pandemic’s economic fallout has been concentrated among lower-wage hourly workers, many of whom were already struggling to afford housing, food, and health care before the pandemic. Safety net programs and pandemic-related income supports likely prevented even more severe deprivation among families who lost jobs and income and provided buffers against hardship for many other families, improving the average adult’s ability to meet their family’s basic needs.

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