The Basic Truth About Basic Needs

RAPID Survey
RAPID Survey
Published in
12 min readJul 8, 2020


Structural inequalities exist based on income and race/ethnicity among households with young children during the pandemic

By the RAPID-EC Project Team

Key findings

In this posting we present data showing that income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship (particularly difficulties obtaining basic needs including housing, utilities, and food) during the pandemic are unequally distributed across households with young children.

We find that lower income households are harder hit.

We further observe similar financial difficulties and material hardships among Black and Latinx households. Most strikingly, middle/upper income Black and Latinx households are experiencing significantly more financial and material hardship than other middle/upper income households.

These findings are evidence of structural economic and racial inequality among households with young children. Policy makers must address these inequalities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the inequality gap in the United States. Those who experience structural inequalities, including lower income groups and communities of color, have been harder hit by the pandemic; this is true not only in terms of coronavirus infection and mortality rates, but also, as we have reported previously, in related areas such as unemployment, health care, and childcare.

In this week’s post, we examine income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship during the pandemic of American households with children age 5 and under.¹

Our data show an increasing income gap between lower income families and middle/upper income families since the start of the pandemic; our data also build on pre-pandemic reports that a greater proportion of lower-income families are experiencing financial difficulties and material hardships.

In addition, we find a widening income gap between both Black and Latinx households with young children and other households in our survey.

We also find a greater proportion of Black and Latinx households with young children are experiencing financial and material hardship compared to other families.

It is noteworthy that differences in the proportions of specific subgroups experiencing hardships appear to be largely independent of income — they are actually most pronounced in middle and upper income households.

These results point to clear and targeted actions that policy makers must take to address the needs of lower income as well as Black and Latinx households, and to reduce the structural inequalities being experienced in these households during the pandemic.

Without attention to these issues, especially for as long as coronavirus cases continue to rise precipitously in many areas of the country (and likely for a long time afterwards), the economic and social conditions of many households with young children in the US will continue to worsen.

Measuring income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship

We asked RAPID-EC survey respondents to indicate how the coronavirus pandemic had affected their income, finances, and material hardship, in the following manner:

Income loss

“Which of the following best describes what has happened to your family income during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic?”
a. stayed the same
b. increased
c. decreased

Financial difficulties

“Which of the following best describes your family financially at this time?”
a. none/minor difficulties
b. major/extreme difficulties

Material hardship

“Which of the following (utilities, housing, food, healthcare, emotional supports, child care, social supports, other) have been difficult to pay for in the past month?”
a. none have been difficult to pay for
b. one or more has been difficult to pay for

We analyzed the data by looking at responses for the overall nationally representative sample of households in our survey, and for specific subgroups. We also examined the specific types of material hardship that families reported for the overall sample and for subgroups within the sample.

Lower income families are experiencing more income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship than others

Our data reveal that a significantly greater proportion of lower income households than middle/upper income households are reporting decreased income since the start of the pandemic (46% vs. 33%).

One reason this may be the case is that many of the jobs that have been lost during the pandemic are lower wage jobs that require personal contact and cannot be performed remotely. This means that many lower income households have even less income than they did before the pandemic.

As such, it is not surprising that in our survey data a greater proportion of lower income households relative to other households are reporting major or extreme financial difficulties (37% vs. 10%) and material hardship (69% vs. 26%). Notably, similar rates of material hardship among lower income households have been reported elsewhere.

We examined the specific categories of material hardship, and found that, for lower income households, paying for utilities (endorsed by 49% of lower income households), housing (37% of lower income households), and food (33% of lower income households) were the three areas of greatest difficulties.

The three areas of greatest material hardhsip represent the basic needs most necessary for survival.

In addition, we found that — with the exception of healthcare — lower income households reported significantly more difficulties paying for basic needs across all categories we assessed of material hardship than middle/upper income households.

Black and Latinx households with young children are also experiencing more income loss, financial difficulties, and material hardship than others

Our data show clear racial/ethnic disparities in terms of income loss as well as financial and material hardship.

Significantly more Black households are experiencing income loss during the pandemic than other households (43% vs. 37%), and significantly more Black households are reporting major or extreme financial difficulties (27% vs. 17%).

In Latinx households, significantly more Latinx households than other households are reporting major or extreme financial difficulties (25% vs. 17%).

Black households are experiencing material hardship in significantly higher proportion than the rest of the sample (57% vs. 41%), as are Latinx households relative to the rest of the sample (53% vs. 40%).

The three categories of greatest material hardship for Black households were paying for: utilities (35% of households), housing (30%), and food (30%).

In all three of these categories, Black households reported significantly higher proportions of material hardship than other households. Black households also reported more difficulty in paying for childcare (14%).

In Latinx households, the three categories were the same: paying for utilities (30% of households), housing (30%), and food (27%).

In all three of these categories, and also in paying for healthcare (15%) and childcare (12%), Latinx households reported significantly higher proportions of material hardship than other households.

Racial/ethnic disparities in financial difficulties and material hardship are especially pronounced among middle/upper income households

It is important to document whether the racial and ethnic disparities we observed are the result of the lower income of Black and Latinx households relative to the overall sample. Our analyses show this is not the case and reveal a different picture.

We split Black and Latinx households into lower and middle/upper income groups, and compared them to the other lower and middle/upper income households in the sample. We observed that:

  • Across all lower income households, the proportions reporting major or extreme financial difficulties is about the same (46% for Black households, 42% for Latinx, 45% for others).
  • Also across all lower-income households, the proportion reporting material hardship is about the same (69% for Black household, 69% for Latinx, 73% for others).

Racial/ethnic disparities are most pronounced in middle/upper income households.

A significantly greater proportion of middle/upper income Black households reported financial difficulties (17% vs. 10%) and material hardships (44% vs. 25%) than other middle/upper income households.

A significantly greater proportion of middle/upper income Latinx households reported financial difficulties (18% vs. 9%) and material hardships (41% vs. 23%) than other middle/upper income households.

This finding provides evidence that Black and Latinx households with young children are exposed to structural inequalities that are not a function of income.

This is, needless to say, not the first report of such inequalities in the US population. For example:

  • A recent report documented that Black families pay significantly higher property taxes than white families.
  • A study in Boston found that the highest eviction rates during the pandemic prior to the eviction moratorium were among Black and immigrant households.
  • And more generally, statistics show that Black families on average have less wealth and many are one paycheck away from becoming low income.

As such, in the context of the pandemic, as infection rates continue to rise and stress levels remain high for many, the fact that households with young children in our survey are so clearly being affected by structural racial inequalities is both consistent with other findings and of grave concern.

We must act now to address disparities in financial and material hardship based on income and race/ethnicity

In light of the extensive scientific evidence of the importance the early years of life on brain development, social/emotional well being, and health across the lifespan, reducing financial difficulties and material hardship among households with young children must become an extremely high priority issue.

It is hard to imagine greater sources of stress for caregivers of young children than uncertainty about the ability to pay for basic needs such as food, utilities and housing.

As long as these hardships continue to grow among households with young children, we can expect to see long term effects on individuals, communities, and the country as a whole.

To make matters worse, in the coming weeks and months, a number of policy measures that were implemented at the start of the pandemic will expire.

  • The $600/week supplement to unemployment insurance implemented in March in the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is set to expire on July 31, 2020. (On average, unemployment payments prior to the pandemic averaged only $380 per week, which are only a fraction/portion of most American’s wages.)
  • The federal ban on evictions in federally-backed properties that was included in the CARES Act expires July 25, and the ban on mortgage foreclosures expires at the end of August.
  • The one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 were provided to families in late April and have long been spent on necessities like food, rent and utilities.

A number of state policies to address income replacement, housing costs, and utility payments may help to fill some of the gaps in the absence of federal aid, but they are unlikely to address the magnitude of needs.

In addition, lack of adequate nutrition continues to be a significant concern for many families with young children, especially in the absence of free and reduced-cost meals that were provided through childcare, preschool, and primary school.

All of these factors are evidence of the crisis many households with young children are either experiencing currently or will soon face.

Our data suggest that these challenges are likely to have a devastating impact on low-income households, and lead to significant increases in the proportion of families who are struggling to meet their children’s basic needs for food and shelter. In addition, without immediate action, homelessness — and with it disruptions to the daily routines and predictability that all children need to thrive — is likely to rise in the coming months.

We are also concerned about the higher levels of financial and material hardship being experienced by Black and Latinx households.

Our data suggest that even among middle/upper income Black and Latinx households, disproportionately high levels of difficulty exist meeting basic needs for food, housing, and even childcare and healthcare.

In the context of longstanding structural inequalities and institutionalized racism, and even more in light of the national awakening to the existence of these issues, such disparities are simply unacceptable.


Contain and manage the Coronavirus.

The virus is currently spreading unabated in many parts of the country. While the economic devastation we are seeing right now is not solely caused by the pandemic, the pandemic is making it much, much worse. We must get this virus under control in order to improve economic well-being. Evidence-informed efforts to test, trace, and isolate need to be scaled nationwide.

Continue to document and reduce the higher incidence of infection, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 among people of color.

Higher rates of coronavirus infection and the greater likelihood of hospitalization and death exist among people of color. In addition, the tendency for these individuals to be in low-wage jobs that expose them to higher risk of infection means that these rates can be expected to continue to rise if specific action is not taken. We must continue to document, treat, and prevent the spread of coronavirus in communities of color.

Enable American families to access and afford food, rent/mortgage, utilities, child care and healthcare.

There are various ways to do this via direct fiscal stimulus to families or via expansion of programs such as SNAP, WIC, LIHEAP, Medicaid, and child care subsidies. All relief to families should be recurring and cease only when local, state or national fiscal/well-being measures are met (unemployment rates, eviction rates, etc.). Moreover, the next round of federal stimulus checks should be distributed on a per person rather than a per household basis, and should be made available to all individuals regardless of immigration status.

Extend federal, state, and local policies that prevent homelessness and related issues.

Currently, only 30% of renters are covered by the moratorium on evictions. Legislation needs to be enacted and/or extended to prevent evictions and mortgage foreclosures, in order to prevent families with young children from becoming homeless. In addition, financial relief must be made available for landlords and other small business owners who depend on timely payment of rent from their tenants.

Address racial inequality in distribution of relief.

While the effort ahead to understand and address the deep systematic racial inequities in this country are significant and will require sustained ongoing attention, there is an opportunity to take immediate action around the benefits offered via stimulus and relief packages forthcoming from Congress.

We encourage Congress to create rules to distribute these funds equitably across racial groups targeting those most in need. Race data must be collected and transparently shared to ensure the public and elected leaders can assess how federal stimulus funds are being spent.

In addition, prior research shows that home ownership, health insurance, and access to credit and savings are the three most powerful factors in reduced incidence of material hardship. Thus, it is imperative that policy efforts reduce longstanding structural barriers to access in each of these areas.

Suggestions for further reading

On material hardship

Measures of Material Hardship,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Poverty and the Distribution of Material Hardship,” The Journal of Human Resources

What Explains the Widespread Material Hardship among Low-Income Families with Children?” Urban Institute

How Economic Crises and Sudden Disasters Increase Racial Disparities in Homeownership,” Urban Institue

Nine Charts about Wealth Inequality in America (Updated),” Urban Institute”

This is how fast Americans are spending their stimulus checks—and here’s a breakdown of what they’re buying,” MarketWatch

On inequality during the pandemic

The Pandemic Will Cleave America in Two,” The Atlantic

As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens Its Spread,” New York Times

The Interwoven Threads of Inequality and Health,” New Yorker

Parents Are Struggling to Provide for Their Families during the Pandemic,” Urban Institute

On racial and ethnic disparities associated with the pandemic

COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Harvard Researchers Find ‘Inequality on Top of Inequality’ in COVID-19 Deaths,” NPR

Racial inequalities in COVID-19—the impact on black communities,” Medical News Today

Black Families Were Hit Hard by the Pandemic. The Effects on Children May Be Lasting,” New York Times

The Coming Wave of Coronavirus Evictions Will Wipe Out Black Renters,” Bloomberg

Black families pay significantly higher property taxes than white families, new analysis shows,” Washington Post

About the project

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last winter, there were over 24 million children age five and under living in the United States. This period of early childhood is a critical window that sets the stage for health and well-being across the lifespan. As such, it is essential during the current health and economic crisis to listen to the voices of households with young children.

The weekly survey of households with children age five and under launched on April 6, 2020. Since then, we have been gathering weekly data about child and adult emotional well-being, financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, and access to child care/early childhood education.

This week’s analyses are based on responses collected from 5173 caregivers between the dates of April 06, 2020 and June 25, 2020. These caregivers represent a range of voices: 9.36% are Black/African American, 18.77% are LatinX, and 12.51% live at or below 1.5 times the federal poverty line. Proportions/percentages are calculated based on the item-level response rates, not out of the total sample size. The data for these analyses are not weighted.

We will continue to report on these issues as we learn more from each new weekly survey. We will also be producing policy briefs that make concrete recommendations about how to address the challenges we are seeing emerge from the family surveys.

Our goal is to use what we are hearing from families to improve the well-being of all households with young children, during the pandemic and beyond.

Suggested citation

Center for Translational Neuroscience (2020, July 8). The Basic Truth About Basic Needs: Structural Inequalities Exist based on Income and Race/Ethnicity among Households with Young Children during the Pandemic. Medium.

¹ “Material hardship” is a term that refers to challenges meeting basic needs in areas such as housing adequacy, food security, and healthcare access. (return)

² For the purposes of this project, we have defined “lower income households” as those at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines for household size. (return)



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