The COVID-19 Pandemic is Straining Families' Ability to Afford Basic Needs

Girl looks out a barred window.

Survey data of nonelderly adults highlight effects of COVID-19 on families’ employment and ability to meet basic needs.



The Issue

In March 2020, the coronavirus outbreak forced an abrupt shift in the economy’s trajectory as state and local governments instituted bans on large public gatherings, closures of schools and non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home orders. As of late March/early April, many nonelderly adults were struggling to cover essential expenses such as food and housing and worried about how they will cope for the next month.

Key Findings

This brief uses data from a nationally representative survey of nonelderly adults conducted between March 25 and April 10 to examine the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on families’ employment and ability to meet basic needs, as well as disparities by family income and race/ethnicity in the economic impact of the pandemic. Survey findings include:

  • 41.5 percent of adults reported that their families have lost jobs, work hours, or work-related income because of the coronavirus outbreak. These losses were most prevalent among families of Hispanic adults (56.9%) and adults with incomes below poverty level (51.1%).

  • Overall, 30.6 percent of adults reported that their families reduced spending on food, 43.1 percent put off major purchases, and 27.9 percent drew down savings or increased credit card debt. Among adults in families that lost work or income, 46.5 percent reduced spending on food, 58.1 percent put off major purchases, and 43.9 percent tapped savings or increased credit card debt.

  • 31 percent of all adults, and 42 percent of adults in families that lost work or income, reported being unable to pay the rent or mortgage, unable to pay utility bills, being food insecure, or going without medical care in the past month. More than two-thirds (68.6%) of adults with family incomes below poverty level and more than 45 percent of black and Hispanic adults reported that their families experienced one or more of these hardships.

  • Looking ahead to the next month, many adults worried about being able to work enough hours (38.5%) and pay their debts (33.1%). More than one-quarter worry about paying for housing, utility, and medical costs and having enough food to eat.


Alleviating financial and material hardships is not only vital to each person’s health and well-being, but also essential for combating the pandemic. Maintaining public and political will for extending social distancing measures and keeping people housed depend on easing financial pressure on people who have been forced to stop working or have otherwise lost income from jobs or businesses. As the United States continues to address both the public health crisis and the economic crisis, timely data like those available from this survey can help policymakers assess and improve relief efforts so that everyone can afford basic needs until the crisis lifts.

About the Urban Institute

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.