Navigating Compounded Hardships in a Pandemic

Explore stories of people who applied for food assistance during the pandemic across three major thematic areas: losing income, caretaking responsibilities, and health issues.

Click on the diagram below to explore stories, or view all the stories in a spreadsheet.

Health issues Lost income Caretaking

Millions of people face unexpected crises in their relationships, at work, or in their health every year and need help, especially when those crises occur simultaneously. But right now, the people who need access to safety net services are not included in their design. Building government services without input from the people they’re intended for results in barriers to America’s social safety net.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to empower all communities by investing in and building a people-centered, digital-first safety net—one that centers the needs and experiences of people applying for assistance. It’s time to redesign systems from the ground up and make government more resilient., our digital enrollment assistant that helps people apply for CalFresh food assistance (California’s name for SNAP), is a lens into the effects of the pandemic. As the economy shut down in spring 2020, our service helped over 200,000 households apply for food assistance in April alone, compared to 40,000 households two months prior in February. By August, was still helping 100,000 households every month. Over the past year, thousands of applicants have shared their experiences with us. Here are their stories.

GetCalFresh Applications, 2020

The dotted line indicates the start of the statewide lockdown.

Key themes of the pandemic crisis

The realities of food insecurity

Hunger and food insecurity are at historic highs, especially since the pandemic hit—and particularly in marginalized communities, even among children. In July 2020, one in five adults living with children reported their child wasn’t eating enough because they couldn’t afford the food. State and local agency call centers were overwhelmed, with people in some states reporting days spent on hold, countless error messages, and benefits that arrived months after qualification, if at all.

1 in 5 children across California access CalFresh, the state’s food stamp program
29 million adults in the U.S. reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days

The impact of destabilizing events

The COVID-19 pandemic is just one example of a destabilizing event; many forms of adversity and emergency push people to need assistance. About a fifth of families do not have any savings (meaning a positive net worth). Setbacks that happen to millions of people—such as losing a job, an apartment or a partner—have worse consequences for people who don’t have a safety net.

Illustration of a couple looking over some paperwork

Compounded hardship

Existing U.S. programs only address individual aspects of need, such as hunger or lack of shelter—but destabilizing events,  like divorce and housing insecurity, often go together. The social safety net is not set up to address compounded hardship, meaning it may meet one need, like food, but not others, like housing and childcare.

An illustration of a person sitting and thinking

The importance of destigmatizing need

There’s a stigma around applying for food assistance. Amid high levels of economic inequality in America, support programs need to give people the benefit of the doubt when they apply for the assistance they need. We need to eliminate barriers in our safety net programs, such as time-consuming and often frustrating application processes—especially since many government agencies already have the information they need to approve someone for benefits from taxes or other government program applications.

Illustration of an adult and child hugging

Common pandemic hardships

Losing income

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to levels of unemployment last seen during the Great Depression. Between February and May 2020, 14 million Americans lost their jobs, and by March 2021, there were still 5 million fewer people who were employed compared to a year earlier. Out of all GetCalFresh applicants in April 2020 who still had a job, two in three indicated they would earn less in the coming month than in the previous month.

These unemployment patterns look especially grim when considered alongside the large number of people exiting the labor force altogether. The share of people aged 25 to 54 who participate in the labor force saw its biggest drop on record in 2020.

Illustration of a concerned person speaking on the phone
Between February and May 2020, 14 million Americans lost their jobs

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

In April and May 2020, only 27% of unemployed service sector workers received a UI payment

SOURCE: The Shift Project

“My partner and I both lost our jobs due to COVID-19 back in the 2nd and 3rd week of March. Only one of us was eligible to apply for unemployment benefits and it has made it very difficult and stressful to make ends meet. I have lost my health insurance and suffer severe anxiety and depression, I am worried that I will not be able to continue to purchase my medicine and hoping that these food stamps will open up some money for me to be able to keep refilling my prescriptions.”
“I was laid off from my job in May. I applied for unemployment but I have not received it yet. My regular medical insurance expired at the end of May, but I have a chronic heart condition, so I plan to continue my insurance by paying COBRA out of my own pocket. I have lots of credit card debt because my mom and brother were in the hospital for quite some time before passing away. I had to help for their burial expenses as well. The bottom line is - I am really broke, and don't know what to do. CalFresh would be a huge help for me. Thank you so much.”
“I work for two hotels for special events. Since it is seasonal, there is little to no work right now. I get unemployment benefits, but not enough to pay all my bills. I just left an abusive marriage and used all my savings for the divorce and to move out. I'm worried now because although I am safe, I'm not able to support myself yet.”
“My husband and I were both laid off this past month due to the Coronavirus situation. I am mandated to pay child support and cannot go to court to modify the payments as they are closed. We are past due to our landlord and stand a very good chance of being evicted. I have emailed my resume to over 75 recruiters. I currently do not have a car - my car was repossessed and only my husband has one, so we have to alternate for interviews, etc. I'm embarrassed by my situation but need help in feeding my kids during this time. Thank you.”
“I have not been able to find a job since the beginning of March. I applied for PUA benefits but have not received anything. California EDD has been completely unhelpful; they have made it impossible to reach a representative by phone and they don't respond to messages sent through their online site. For the past 4 months I have tried my best to stretch my savings, but now I'm afraid I will have no money within a few days. I honestly do not know what I'm going to do for food.”

Unemployment and labor force exit not only result in a loss of income, but lead to a number of cascading challenges: principally, losing employment-based health insurance and spending down any accumulated savings. Many Americans have very little in savings, especially people with low or no income. Families in the bottom fifth of income only have $9,300 in median net worth, a measure of wealth, and unexpected expenses can easily prompt a crisis. Car issues, a home repair, unexpected rent hikes and other costs can all upset families’ fragile budgets. And financial stress often coincides with family tension, straining relationships. Though borrowing may be possible, neighborhoods where families with low incomes live are often served by lending institutions with high interest rates that can lead to long-term debt traps. These credit constraints make everything from schooling to finding a new place to live more difficult.

There’s a huge gap in access to unemployment insurance across states, especially because of systemic barriers.

In Minnesota, 77% of unemployed workers access benefits

By comparison, the rate in Florida is 8%.
SOURCE: The Shift Project

2 in 5 households fall into poverty because of job loss

Nearly half (47%) of households exit poverty because of a new job.
SOURCE: Journal of Policy Analysis and Management

Health emergencies

People most exposed to COVID-19—such as service and low-wage workers in restaurants or transportation—often lack adequate health insurance and cannot take sick days or medical leave when needed. Unlike other developed countries, the U.S. does not mandate employers provide paid sick leave. Moreover, job protections are weaker, as at-will employment allows employers to fire people with little notice. And since health care is tied to employment but frequently not available for lower-wage work, one in 10 people below the age of 65 were without health insurance in 2019. Health emergencies contribute to compounded hardship, making tasks such as finding a job more difficult.

Illustration of a person in a hospital bed
In 2019, 1 in 10 people below the age of 65 were without health insurance

SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation

“I used to receive state disability, but it only paid up to one year. My doctor recently released me to go back to work with restrictions, but my job says it cannot accommodate. I lost my medical and dental insurance. The only income we receive is from my husband, who has been disabled since 2008. Due to a job injury, he gets a temporary income of $230 per week. We just need some help until my health improves and I'm able to get back to work.”
“We are on our last leg here at our apartment. Our lease is up and we have nowhere to go. I thought I had a job 2 months ago, but I wound up in the hospital with heart failure. I'm more than willing to work now, I just can't work as hard as I could before and adjusting to that has been difficult. My medical insurance expired at the same time my unemployment did. I've been living on canned foods and groceries we had from when our life was good and we were both employed. Any help with these matters would be very much appreciated. Thank you.”
“My husband was hospitalized recently with pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was sedated and intubated for almost 2 weeks. He is still very weak and not capable of helping me with our kids or physical tasks. No idea when he can go back to work. I was supposed to start a new job the week he got sick. Now that job isn't available anymore and I'm looking for work.”
“I am a type-1 diabetic and lost my job over a year ago because I was consistently too ill to work. I've been hospitalized 3 times in the last year for complications from my diabetes. I have Medi-Cal to help with doctors and medication like insulin, but am unable to work to have money for food. I am trying, with help of my doctors, to get signed up for disability since I am unable to work. Being able to have access to money for healthy food would greatly increase the quality of life for me and help keep my blood sugar under control.”
“My state disability is going to run out. I had two spinal fusion surgeries in May and have nerve damage in my leg down to my foot that has left me with no motor control and paralysis. I do not yet know what I am going to do for living expenses. I am working to get SSI benefits, but have been told that will take some time, and in the meantime I am looking for any form of assistance.”


“Those who care for others―whether younger children or older parents―should not have to choose between helping their family and feeding it.”
Jacob Hacker, The Atlantic

As most parents and guardians are well aware, the pandemic forced thousands of elementary, middle and high schools to shut down. Without the teaching and supervision provided at school, families had to spend more time on child and elder care. Families acutely felt similar pressures when caring for a loved one with a disability or illness. Many personal networks of support—health aides, babysitters, and nearby family—were no longer available. These burdens and their impact on participation in the labor force increasingly affects women, who had to scale back their work hours or exit the labor force altogether because of inflexible work arrangements. This issue has expanded as the number of people living in multigenerational households has grown rapidly. Even after the pandemic subsides, accumulated mental and physical care needs will need to be addressed.

Illustration of an adult and child hugging
The National School Program provides meals for 30 million children every day

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture

“I unfortunately had to leave my job because my children's school closed. I have four kids and they need me to be there to care for them while school is online. My partner is still working, but he does not make as much as I used to. We just need a little extra support right now.”
“El motivo porque no trabajo en este momento es porque mi madre tiene cáncer. Ella no maneja ni habla inglés y yo soy la responsable por ella por el momento ... Después que esto pase y ella esté bien, yo buscaré un trabajo fijo y entiendo que todo tipo de ayuda se me cancelara, solo ocupo la ayuda en estos momentos. Gracias.”
“My husband has been diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's; he also has begun having seizures after getting Covid-19 in January. I had to leave work to care for him. I will run out of unemployment soon, and he will run out of disability payments. We are trying to get further disability or in-home supportive services set up. We also have a teenager to care for. He is having a difficult time adjusting to all of this Covid mess and his father's illness.”
“I just lost my job due to Covid. I am going through a terrible divorce. I am taking care of my elderly mother as well as my daughter, who had to come home when her college campus closed. I feel desperate, completely lost and depressed. My daughter and mom depend on me, so I pray I can get some help from you. Thank you! God Bless you!”
“My husband has been off work for the last month and on worker's comp. He expects to return to work briefly while awaiting knee surgery, then will be off again for his surgery and recovery. My children receive free breakfast and lunch at school, but with the schools closed we now have to figure out how to buy all that extra food, and how to do so on his reduced income.”
“Covid-19 hardship, layoff due to lack of work/work closure. I was out for five weeks before the shelter-in-place was in effect due to having a toddler with respiratory illness. I was not able to send my child to daycare and needed to take time off work. I have not received pay or funds since my last paycheck on February 14, and savings has been depleted. Thank you for your support and continued hard work during this time ― you are appreciated!”

Families with children also faced another set of challenges. When schools closed, many school meal programs were suspended. The National School Lunch Program alone usually provides meals to 30 million children per day, and this disruption rapidly resulted in elevated food insecurity. Food insecurity and poor nutrition have long-term effects: new research suggests that children with access to food assistance have more education, live longer, and are less likely to be incarcerated than their food-insecure peers. That’s why Code for America has worked to keep millions of children fed with the implementation of Pandemic EBT and the Child Tax Credit.

Our digital P-EBT application has helped distribute over $619 million in benefits to families in California and Minnesota

The Child Tax Credit expansion is expected to cut child poverty nearly in half.

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