Real Experiences of the Pandemic: Monitoring the Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised many questions. How widespread is support for expanded relief? How are people comparing their circumstances to others? And how are youth and young adults coping with this crisis? In a new series of reports, cosponsored by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Boston, we use timely, in-depth interview data to understand the lived experiences of individuals and families across the country.
Researchers, policymakers, service providers, and funders focused on low-income populations often rely on quantitative data and surveys to understand and respond to the needs of these populations. These data are often lagged and are limited in their ability to explore nuanced and emergent issues. In 2019, researchers from Stanford, Princeton, and Georgetown launched an ambitious new study. The American Voices Project (AVP) is recording the life histories and day-to-day experiences of an unprecedented number of U.S. families and individuals to better understand their challenges and successes and inform policy solutions. AVP data are now being used to track trends during several concurrent crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic downturn, and the protest movement that has intensified in response to systemic racism. A series of reports, Monitoring the Crisis: American Voices Project, explores the impacts of these crises along a number of topical areas.
The AVP is a large-scale, multilayered study, providing in-depth qualitative and quantitative data. Immersive interview questions explore respondents' family, living situation, community, health, emotional well-being, living costs, and income, along with quantitative data on the household balance sheet. The households selected were stratified to create a nationally representative sample of communities in the United States and of households within these communities, which allows researchers to generalize findings to the larger population. Several Federal Reserve Banks are partial funders of the AVP, including the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and San Francisco.
The AVP began collecting data in the summer of 2019 via face-to-face interviews. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the original plans for the project and required several adjustments. Practically, for the safety of interviewees and interviewers, the AVP stopped in-person recruitment and data collection and began recruitment by mail and telephone and telephone-based interviews. Conceptually, to capture respondents' experiences and feelings about the current crises, interview questions were added to address the pandemic, race and racism, changes in employment and earnings, health and health care, schooling and childcare, and the utilization of pandemic assistance, such as economic impact payments (or stimulus checks). Throughout early 2021, the AVP continued to collect data by telephone, with approximately 1,600 pre-COVID and 1,000 post-COVID interviews completed. This detailed information about the experiences of affected households provides valuable context that can inform how we respond to the ongoing pandemic and the ostensibly long recovery ahead.
Monitoring the Crisis report series
The AVP team has begun to code and analyze the data and the Monitoring the Crisis reports are based on these initial findings. Each report covers a discrete topic such as youth and young adults, employment status and class structure, health and mental health, and material hardship. Reports on additional topics will follow.
The first set of reports cover interviews conducted during the summer and early fall of 2020, when a second peak of the virus was under way. The first four reports unveil both expected and unexpected impacts on families and individuals, as well as a nuanced context of these impacts. The first report on youth and young adults, Having to Stay Still: Youth and Young Adults in the COVID-19 Crisis, by Michelle Jackson, Joanna Lee Williams, Nima Dahir, and Amanda Edelman, found profound impacts on the youth population's ability to move, act independently, interact, and celebrate markers of progress such as graduations. Although most of these effects were perceived as losses, some respondents felt that the pandemic also provided opportunity for strengthening connections with friends and family and developing new skills and giving back. These trends did not differ materially across socioeconomic status or race. The report reflected the experiences of 111 individuals ages 10 to 25, of which about 51 percent were female, 49 percent male, 42 percent Hispanic of any race, 27 percent non-Hispanic white, and 21 percent non-Hispanic Black.
The second report on employment, The Rise of the Noxious Contract: Job Safety in the COVID-19 Crisis, by David B. Grusky, Ann Carpenter, Erin Graves, Anna Kallschmidt, Pablo Mitnik, Bethany Nichols, and C. Matthew Snipp, focused on the new class structure of work, such as remote workers and those temporarily or permanently unemployed due to the pandemic. Contrary to narratives in the media of conflict and envy between those who face disproportionate health and economic risks and those who do not, the authors found sentiments of stoicism, gratitude in recognition of the plight of those less fortunate, and a sense of unity in the face of a crisis.
The third report on health and mental health, 'What's Weighing Heaviest': Indirect Health Consequences of the COVID-19 Crisis, by Jeremy Freese, Amy L. Johnson, and Macario Garcia, found that health and mental health consequences resulting from the pandemic were widespread. For example, health care access has been limited and financial stress and social isolation have exacerbated existing mental health challenges for many people and brought on new mental health challenges for others.
The fourth report on material hardship, It Took a Pandemic…Expanded Assistance, Material Hardship, and Helping Others during the COVID-19 Crisis, by Marybeth J. Mattingly, Julia Gutierrez, Emily Ryder Perlmeter, and Katherine E. Wullert, found that households that struggled to meet their needs faced even greater hardship during the pandemic. Additional assistance made available by the CARES Act provided much needed help, but it was insufficient for many people. Respondents were overwhelmingly supportive of the additional safety net provisions, although many respondents felt that the resources should be better targeted to those with the most need.
The coinciding crises of the pandemic, recession, and national reckoning with racism were clearly not anticipated when the AVP was designed or fielded. However, the Monitoring the Crisis reports give us a unique view into American households during a time of great disruption to our lives. As noted by Atlanta Fed research director David Altig, "In its scope, the American Voices Project is a historic effort and is extremely timely in light of the extraordinary challenges facing families in America."
By Ann Carpenter, Atlanta Fed assistant vice president