How Are Americans Coping Financially with COVID-19?

Maeve Gearing
Maeve Gearing discusses the findings of the Coronavirus Attitudes and Behaviors Survey, a nationally representative survey.

Stark divisions in financial coping emerge in the Coronavirus Attitudes and Behaviors Survey, a nationally representative survey conducted in May 2020 by Westat and Stanford University School of Medicine. While 60-70% of people in the U.S. say they are unaffected financially by the pandemic, or even doing well, 30-40% are struggling. This summary is the first in a series that presents analysis of responses to multiple choice and open-ended questions. In later features, we will present information about Americans’ anxiety about the pandemic and how they are coping.

Carol Bruce
Carol Bruce led the analysis and shares insights on the findings.

Most of those who are struggling report experiencing job or income loss; almost 1/5 of those surveyed report that their monthly income has declined by 50% or more. The most vulnerable to experiencing financial hardship include women, Hispanic people, unmarried people, those with less than a college degree, and those making under $25,000 a year. The only bright side for many of these vulnerable groups is that expenses have decreased, with fewer opportunities for spending and government support as a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Overall, 11% of Americans say they are finding it difficult to get by.

On the other side are those who report doing okay (43%) or living comfortably (26%) financially during the pandemic. For most of this group, there has been no change in income, but their expenses have decreased due to forced savings from state and local shutdowns. Four percent say they are doing well specifically because of help from the government (including stimulus money and increased unemployment benefits) while 8% say they are thriving.

“The survey findings highlight what we haven’t seen in other surveys: the inequality gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling during the pandemic,” notes Maeve Gearing, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director with expertise in public policy research. While more analysis needs to be done, there are several possible explanations. “While the government aid is definitely helping some,” says Dr. Gearing, “there seem to be many for whom it is not doing enough.” Carol Bruce, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director, notes that “those with less discretionary income may be unable to adapt to financial hardship by reducing expenditures.” The continuing impacts could be severe. “The pandemic may be exacerbating income divisions in the country,” says Dr. Gearing.

One factor is pervasive throughout the data: people are being very cautious financially. Even those who have not seen any job or income loss are reducing their spending, and many cite fear of future hardship as a reason for retrenching financially. The uncertainty about the length of the pandemic and the need to protect themselves and their pocketbooks is evident.

Stanford and Westat will publish comprehensive findings later this year. For an infographic that summarizes the data, see: How Americans Are Coping Financially with COVID-19 (PDF).

Read more about how the survey was designed and managed: COVID-19: How Has It Changed Americans’ Attitudes and Behaviors?

The survey findings highlight what we haven’t seen in other surveys: the inequality gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling during the pandemic.

- Maeve Gearing, Ph.D., a Westat Senior Study Director

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