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

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


“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

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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