This blog post expands on findings presented in our new site, Navigating Compounded Hardships in a Pandemic, through which you can explore the stories of people who applied for food assistance during the pandemic across three major thematic areas: losing income, caretaking responsibilities, and health issues.
Millions of people face unexpected crises every year and need help. Common setbacks—such as losing a job, facing a rent hike, having to pay for car repairs, or going through a divorce—are magnified in their consequences when resources are already tight. For people with low incomes, these crises can be especially debilitating. About a fifth of families in the United States don’t have any savings. This issue makes millions vulnerable—but especially people in precarious employment situations or those out of the labor force entirely.
At times of crisis, we should all have the chance to seek support from our government. The social safety net is a network of largely disconnected supports that aims to promote the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and seniors. Access to this safety net should be equitable—but it often isn’t. Getting benefits isn’t as easy as it should be.
There are so many barriers that stand between people and the help they need and deserve. Eligibility requirements for benefits are complicated and often lead to people missing out on certain programs. Application processes sometimes require people to visit government offices in person—and when states shifted applications online during pandemic office closures, the websites would frequently time out or crash. People without computers especially struggle, as benefit applications are rarely built for mobile phones, which may be the only internet-connected device someone has. These bureaucratic hurdles prevent people from accessing the aid that would help them find stability.
Since the pandemic hit, many people have faced overlapping crises. They lost their jobs and couldn’t afford rent; or their child’s school closed, leaving them without childcare or free meals. These stories showed just how big all the gaps in our social safety net are—and they shouldn’t be forgotten. The pandemic can be a major catalyst for change if we choose to learn from it.
What the pandemic made visible
GetCalFresh, our service that helps people apply for California’s version of food stamps, is a lens into the effects of the pandemic. As the economy shut down, our service helped over 200,000 households apply for food assistance in April 2020 alone, compared to 40,000 households in February of that year. By August, GetCalFresh was still helping 100,000 households every month. Over the past year, thousands of applicants have shared their stories with us, and their stories illustrate how urgent the need for a stronger safety net is.
A major theme we heard about was income loss. Between February and May 2020, 14 million Americans lost their jobs. By March 2021, there were still 5 million fewer people who were employed compared to a year earlier. Furloughs and reduced hours impacted more people still. The crisis was especially severe for low-wage service workers, women, and parents or caregivers. 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 savings.
The majority of families with low incomes already had very few financial resources. Only 40% of people in the U.S. can afford a $1,000 emergency expense, and families in the bottom fifth of income only have $9,300 in overall wealth. Car issues, a home repair, child care, and other costs can all upset families’ fragile budgets.
As a consequence, food insecurity is at a historic high. Millions of families face this challenge, with the highest concentration in communities of color and immigrant households where the average income and familial wealth is lower and a higher percentage of people work in the service sector. State and local agency call centers that handle benefits have been overwhelmed, and many people aren’t able to access the support they need.
The pandemic also caused a crisis for renters. Even before the pandemic began, housing affordability was a critical issue for a large share of people in the US. As housing costs have gradually increased, government expenditures on housing assistance have not kept pace. Despite millions of households needing assistance, funding is so limited that housing agencies frequently close their waiting lists entirely. In 2020, the average wait time to obtain Section 8 vouchers was over two years. Furthermore, the virus has made one of the most common strategies for housing-insecure families—staying with friends or family—much more dangerous.
At the same time, many families had to deal with new caretaking situations. The pandemic forced thousands of schools to shut down and many personal networks of support—health aides, babysitters, nearby family—were no longer available. Finding care for children with disabilities proved more difficult than ever, as In-Home Supportive Services were neither sufficiently resourced nor adaptive enough to meet patient needs. More than anyone else, increased caretaking responsibilities have affected women, particularly mothers, who have had to scale back their work hours or exit the labor force altogether. The pervasive lack of public support for care work leaves families facing impossible tradeoffs. As political scientist Jacob Hacker described it recently, “Those who care for others—whether younger children or older parents—should not have to choose between helping their family and feeding it.” But that’s exactly what so many people have had to do.
In the midst of all of these overlapping crises, what the pandemic highlighted most of all is the inaccessibility of health care. The people at the greatest risk of exposure 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 they need to. Unlike other developed countries, the US does not mandate employers provide paid sick leave. And since health care is tied to employment but frequently unavailable for lower-wage work, one in 10 people below the age of 65 were without health insurance in 2019. Foregoing necessary care or medication is common among people without insurance, and many CalFresh applicants give voice to how unsustainable that feels.
What can we do?
An effective social safety net requires de-stigmatization of the benefits application process. We need to acknowledge that our vulnerabilities and needs change throughout life, especially in the face of unexpected adversity. The process of applying for benefits should be designed with the awareness that most, if not all, of the people applying are in crisis—meaning it should be less time-consuming, easier to understand, and more dignified.
We must understand that hardship is a political choice. Precarity can be reduced with fiscal and transfer policies that grant more support, more quickly and predictably, to more people. Existing US programs only address one need at a time, like hunger or lack of shelter. Destabilizing events like sudden unemployment lead to multiple issues that need to be addressed, such as loss of health insurance, housing instability, and food insecurity all at once. The safety net is not set up to address compounded hardship—or to provide support in a way that helps people live with increased agency and dignity.
A once in a generation opportunity
Because of the pandemic, we have a unique chance to reimagine what our society and government look like. We can’t let a moment of opportunity like this pass us by—not when we’ve seen the first large-scale experimentation with universal basic income through the stimulus checks, a historic expansion to benefits like the Child Tax Credit, and a willingness from government at all levels to do things differently. We have the chance not just to continue changes like this, but to build on them so that going back to “normal” doesn’t mean going backward.
Even before the pandemic, the status quo wasn’t working for millions of people in this country. While COVID-19 relief measures have helped many, they are temporary and often fail to reach those in greatest need. Rent relief and eviction moratoria are expiring. The Child Tax Credit isn’t designed to reach non-filers. While such relief measures are certainly better than nothing, attention must now turn to fixing the systemic underlying issues in our safety net.
Take unemployment insurance (UI), for example. It is difficult to apply for, slow to arrive, and severely time-limited. Many people facing furloughs and reduced hours don’t qualify for standard UI. The eligibility requirements for other safety net programs such as TANF and SNAP presume that it is possible to find employment, an expectation that is ill-fitting during a crisis. These are fundamental issues that existed long before the pandemic—but their existence is making the crisis of the pandemic much worse for people facing precarious situations. Issues in the social safety net can be fixed by direct policy intervention designed to make the system more people-centered and responsive to evolving needs.
When support programs are generous and easily accessible, they help substantially. Measures such as the flexible cash of the stimulus checks made an important difference in helping families with lower incomes pay their bills. Other COVID relief efforts in the CARES Act also helped millions; the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes government benefits into account, showed a drop in poverty from 11.8% to 9.1% from 2019 to 2020. The Census also found a three point drop in food insecurity in households with children just after the Child Tax Credit was delivered. Automatic structures like this can and should be put in place for all benefits people access in times of need, from food stamps to childcare support. Employers already report most of the information required to apply for benefits—like income, social security numbers, and addresses—to government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service.
Changes that we make now shouldn’t stop with improving the benefits system. There are other steps we can take to prevent people from facing cascading crises. We can increase employment protections, including sick days, and widen access to affordable healthcare—especially for people under age 65 and currently ineligible for Medicare, for whom navigating the high costs of the US medical system can be daunting. We can build more affordable housing and increase subsidies to bridge the current supply shortfall. We can implement a universal child credit to give families more flexibility to find sustainable work arrangements and provide a lifeline during crises when employment proves out of reach.
The stories of hardship from this pandemic are a call to action for us all, from elected officials to technologists, public servants to community organizers. It’s time to think big, and to prepare ourselves for crises to come—both individual and societal—so that in periods of stress, everyone has access to the support they need.