Poverty & Safety Net
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New Survey Shows Nearly 80 Percent of Ohio Households Struggled to Make Ends Meet during the Pandemic: What Has Helped?

Alex Dorman
Research Fellow
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October 11, 2021
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By Alex Dorman, Research AssociateHope Lane, Public Policy & External Affairs Associate  

COVID-19 has been a burden on countless Ohioans, exacerbating many long-standing problems that threaten the stability of families. Fortunately, some temporary state and federal programs provided assistance to families reeling from the effects of the pandemic. In an effort to better understand how these programs were utilized, The Center for Community Solutions partnered with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks to survey low- and moderate-income Ohioans about what helped during the pandemic. A network of foodbank professionals were asked to share the survey as widely as possible on social media and through targeted outreach. More than 350 valid responses were received, most from people who utilized at least one public benefit program. These survey results provide critical insight regarding program usage that will be useful for policymakers and service providers when thinking about community needs and the future of these programs.

 More than 350 valid responses were received, most from people who utilized at least one public benefit program.

Key Takeaways

  • Most households experienced some food insecurity during the pandemic
  • Almost all forms of assistance/benefits saw a significant increase during the pandemic
  • 45 percent of households experienced a loss in employment income
  • 78 percent of households indicated difficulty in affording cost-of-living expenses
  • The pandemic’s burdens were not experienced uniformly by all households  
  • Households with children were the hardest hit demographic in the survey sample  
  • Households with older adults reported significantly worse experiences than houses without older adults  
  • Black respondents reported worse experiences than white respondents
  • Removal of temporary benefits and assistance has the potential to have devastating effects on households that have depended on them throughout the pandemic

Food Security  

Most of the Ohio families represented in the survey struggled significantly during the pandemic. Well over two-thirds of the sample reported being worried about running out of food before being able to buy more during the pandemic, or since March 13, 2020, including more than one quarter of respondents who said they often had this worry. Over 60 percent of respondents experienced times during the pandemic when they ran out of food and they didn’t have money to get more.

 

Clearly, food security was a challenge for the majority of survey respondents, but many received food assistance which helped during the pandemic. As detailed in the table below, the most common food assistance received was visiting a food pantry or free food distribution, followed by SNAP benefits and Pandemic EBT.  

Other Needs

Of course, food security wasn’t the only challenge Ohioans have faced during the pandemic. Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents reported that they themselves or someone in their household experienced a loss of employment during the pandemic. This finding is consistent with Census Pulse Data which reports that roughly 48 percent of households in Ohio experienced a loss in employment income. When asked about how difficult it has been to pay for usual cost of living expenses, nearly 78 percent reported some level of difficulty, including 20 percent for whom it was very difficult, 24 percent who reported it being somewhat difficult and 34 percent who said it was a little difficult.

 Nearly half of respondents reported that they themselves or someone in their household experienced a loss of employment during the pandemic.

Respondents were asked if they had utilized any of the following benefits not directly related to food assistance during the pandemic. All but 40 respondents reported not receiving any kind of benefits or assistance, which means nearly 90 percent had accessed at least some help. As detailed in the table below, the most common assistance received was economic stimulus from the government, followed by unemployment insurance payments and deferred student loan payments.

Impact of the Pandemic

Where the importance of these programs becomes abundantly clear is in the comparison of benefits use prior to the pandemic, and benefits use as a result the pandemic. In order to measure this phenomenon, participants were asked to describe what kinds of benefits they were receiving prior to the pandemic, as well as during the pandemic. This allowed for the direct comparison of benefit needs before and during the pandemic, and allowed us to infer what benefits were necessary as a result of the pandemic.  

 

During the pandemic, significantly more Ohioans relied on benefits and assistance for survival. Among respondents to the survey, the greatest increase was visiting a food pantry/free food distribution, receiving unemployment insurance, and receiving SNAP or “food stamps” benefits via an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. Each showed statistically significant growth pre-pandemic[1].This finding mirrors anecdotal and media reports that a huge number of Ohioans sought help for the first time over the course of the last two years.  

Indeed, there were increases in use for all forms of benefits and assistance, including home delivered meals, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Cash Assistance/Ohio Works First. Some benefits, such as the student loan moratorium, the eviction moratorium and the stimulus dollars, were not tested because they weren’t available prior to the pandemic.

Experiences by Race, Gender and Housing Composition

As previously discussed, the pandemic has had devastating impacts on many Ohio households. National data is showing that the pain of the COVID crisis has not been evenly felt and this survey allowed an examination of whether those impacts were being felt disproportionately or uniformly among different groups within Ohio including Gender; Race; Households with children under the age of 18; and Households with older adults over the age of 65. Six critical measures were used to assess these differences that explored hardships experienced during the pandemic.  

First, we explored differences by gender, female (n=233) compared to male (n=58)[2] [3].  

 

Male respondents in this sample were significantly more likely than females to be from households with children, as well as from households with older adults. As described below, households with children appeared to face greater challenges than other groups and could explain the gender disparities. Indeed, when looking at differences between males (n=12) and females (n=102) from households without children, the differences were no longer significant.  

We also wanted to look at the differences between people of various races. The only racial or ethnic groups that had enough respondents to conduct this analysis were white respondents and Black/Multiracial respondents[4] [5].  

 

Another group we were interested in exploring was respondents who were part of households with children. We examined those who had children under 18 living in their house (n=181) compared to the population of respondents who did not have any children under 18 living in their house (n=172)[6].  

 

At the other end of the lifespan, the final group we were interested in exploring was the population of respondents who had older adults (65+) living in their house (n=108) compared to the population of respondents who did not have any older adults living in their house (n=245)[7].  

Broadly speaking, the groups that showed worse outcomes across six critical measures were, Black respondents, households with children, households with elders, and males. Households with children experienced all outcome measures significantly worse than households without children, suggesting that this population has the greatest needs, and that has been hit the hardest during the pandemic. This great need specific to households with children also in all likelihood explains the reason why males in this sample showed significant need as well; Male respondents in this sample were significantly more likely than females to be from households with children, as well as from households with older adults. Indeed, when looking at differences between males (n=12) and females (n=102) from households without children, the differences were no longer significant. This relationship did not exist for Black respondents.  

Insight about Pandemic Benefits

Respondents were asked to provide their thoughts in their own words about the ways in which specific temporary pandemic benefits had an impact on their lives. Answers to these questions tended to fall into a few distinct categories and are summarized, below.  

-The Child Tax Credit allowed households to purchase both “essential” and “non-essential” items such as household goods, clothes and furniture. It improved some families’ ability to pay off debts and overdue bills. Some reported being able to take advantage of new opportunities, such as being able to afford extracurricular activities for their children for the first time. Finally, some were able to forgo working a second or third job because they could count on the payments, granting them more time with their children.  

-Unemployment Insurance was greatly beneficial for those furloughed or laid off during the pandemic. When payments ended, many respondents reported turning to credits cards to supplement the loss of the payments while they continued to look for work with wages comparable to what they were receiving prior to the pandemic.  

-SNAP Emergency Allotments allowed many households to keep their families fed. Many respondents reported that the end of SNAP emergency allotments will mean returning to making tough decisions about tradeoffs, i.e. choosing between paying bills or eating. Some reported going from having to skip meals to survive pre-pandemic to now being able to eat more than one meal per day. Many respondents reported that the additional SNAP benefits have allowed their family to eat healthier or “better” including being able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The additional funds allow households to be less limited in their shopping and mean they no longer have to only buy what is on sale or the cheapest options available. There is a fear among respondents that, with rising food costs and the loss of the emergency allotments, they will be more food insecure than they were pre-pandemic.  

-Pandemic EBT, especially summer P-EBT, has been crucial to feeding growing children throughout the pandemic. Respondents indicated that P-EBT took away some of their worries about how to feed their children, especially those who were not eligible for traditional SNAP. Some respondents stated that traditional SNAP doesn’t account for how much growing children eat; the new P-EBT program helps to supplement this.

Conclusion

The results from this survey provide critical insight into the lives of lower-income Ohioans who have been helped immensely from temporary benefits and assistance programs. Not only did the clear majority of people across Ohio indicate that they were worried about not having enough to eat in their household, most of them did experience food insecurity during the pandemic. Part of the pressure is likely from the fact that most respondents reported that they, or someone in their house, experienced some form of job loss during the pandemic. In addition, almost all forms of assistance saw a significant increase in usage from before the pandemic.  

As has been found in other studies, the burdens felt by Ohioans are not felt equally. Survey results show that families with children were some of the hardest hit. However, across some measures, males, Black respondents, and households with older adults also fared worse than their counterparts.

 Many expect that the end of the programs will have detrimental effects on them and their families.

When asked to describe the impact of these benefits/assistance programs in their own words, respondents were unequivocal in how helpful the programs were. It is difficult to imagine their circumstances if the temporary emergency help had not been available. Many expect that the end of the programs will have detrimental effects on them and their families. Some of these programs may have been designed to be temporary, but they demonstrated their necessity, and the lives of people in this sample were markedly improved because of them.

Information about the Sample

The 353 respondents represented a diverse sample of Ohioans from across the state. Sixty-six of Ohio’s 88 counties were represented, with the largest concentration of respondents coming from Cuyahoga (20 percent), Lorain (7.0 percent) and Franklin (6.1 percent). Among the respondents who identified their demographic characteristics, 79.8 percent of respondents were female, 19.9 percent were male, and one respondent was gender neutral. Respondents who indicated their race and ethnicity were primarily white (86.7 percent), Black (7.9 percent) and multiracial (2.9 percent), with 3.4 percent of respondents identifying as Hispanic/Latino. In relation to the demographics of Ohio statewide, the survey respondents are strongly overrepresented by females, which make up 51 percent of the state’s population but comprised nearly 80 percent of respondents. The survey sample is also slightly over representative of white individuals (81.7 percent of the state), and under representative of Black individuals (13.1 percent of the state). Respondents also provided insights into their households, with half (51.3 percent) of the sample living with children under the age of 18, and nearly a third (30.6 percent) living with adults over the age of 65. About one-third (33.7 percent) of the respondents were employed fulltime, and an additional 15.3 percent were employed part time.  

According to a measure of economic status based on household income and number of people in the household developed by The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OCED)[8], we estimate the sample’s economic breakdown. According to OCED’s income thresholds, 75 percent to 200 percent of the median income denoted middle income. Above or below those thresholds indicated lower and higher incomes, respectively. The median income increased depending on the number of individuals in the household. Among the people who reported both income and number of people in the household (n=274), 46.0 percent of respondents were lower income, 49.6 percent were middle income and the remaining 4.4 percent were upper income. Given the way this was calculated, there is a strong possibility that the middle income estimate is overinflated, with some respondents actually being lower income, and some respondents being upper income. This is not of particular concern, however, because the primary purpose in this exercise was to explore whether or not the target sample of individuals who would be eligible for most assistance/benefits was reached. This exercise indicates that it was.  

Based on the results of various statistical tests, and the information heard directly from Ohioans benefiting from these programs, The Center for Community Solutions concludes that the survey results provide useful information about conditions facing low-income Ohioans.  

[1] According to Wilcoxon Sign Rank testing at a significance of p=<.001  

[2] We do not want to ignore the respondent who was gender neutral, but unfortunately meaningful comparisons cannot be made with such a small sample.  

[3] A series of nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests were conducted comparing how males and females responded to specific survey questions. Significance was set at p=<.05.  

[4] In an effort to develop a slightly larger sample of Black respondents, any participant who identified as being multiracial with one race being Black, was operationalized as Black for this analysis, giving a total of 28 Black respondents. White respondents were operationalized as anyone who identified as exclusively white (n=242).  

[5] A series of nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests were conducted with a significance level set at p=<.05.  

[6] A series of nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests were conducted with a significance level set at p=<.05.  

[7] A series of nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests were conducted with a significance level set at p=<.05.  

[8] See RAND Corporation: https://www.rand.org/blog/2021/05/most-americans-consider-themselves-middle-class-but.html  

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