Households Impacted by Employment Changes More Likely to Experience Material Hardship in 2020

The Urban Institute has released results from the December 2020 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey. The report, “Average Decline in Material Hardship during the Pandemic Conceals Unequal Circumstances,” identifies the divergent experiences of households whose employment was affected in 2020 and those whose employment was not. Households who lost employment income were much more likely to experience food insecurity, have problems paying for utilities or rent, or forgo medical care for financial reasons.

The Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS) is a nationally representative annual survey of more than 7,500 adults ages 18 to 64. The WBNS is an internet-based survey. This report compares results from the WBNS in December 2019 and December 2020 to gauge the effects of the pandemic.

When looking at the entire population, several forms of material hardship actually declined in 2020, according to the survey results. The authors argue that economic impact payments sent to a majority households may be part of the explanation. Among all respondents, food insecurity fell by 3.4 percentage points between 2019 and 2020, utility shutoffs fell by 1.2 percentage points, and problems paying medical bills fell by 3.9 percentage points. These data are consistent with the idea that, even in stronger economic periods, many low-wage workers do not earn enough to avoid material hardship, such that broadly distributed economic impact payments could ease such hardship.

About 9 million fewer adults were employed in December 2020 than in December 2019, however, and households in which someone lost a job or employment income were much more likely to experience hardship in 2020. Adults whose families lost jobs were twice as likely to report food insecurity and nearly four times more likely to report problems paying the rent or mortgage. Nearly one in six adults (16%) reported that they or their spouse or partner lost a job or was laid off. Another 23.3% reported they or their spouse was furloughed, had work hours reduced, or lost income.

The survey also asked respondents about public and private safety net programs they were able to access and use in 2020. Households who lost a job were most likely to report receiving unemployment insurance (52%), charitable food (32%), Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) (29%), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (21%). Fewer reported receiving rental assistance (6%). Housing tenure and other eligibility criteria explain part of that disparity. While the survey does not ask respondents about the reasons they participated in some programs rather than others, it is possible that ignorance of rental assistance programs or difficulty accessing aid may have played a role. In February 2021, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that over 30% of renters did not know of local rental assistance programs or how to apply. Lack of sufficient funds for rental assistance throughout much of 2020 may also explain that difference.

The report can be found at: