Food and Housing Hardship in the COVID-19 Recession

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused historic economic pain and hardship for families and households in the US. But much of this pain has been felt unevenly across the country. The pandemic has exacerbated existing hardships for Black, Hispanic, and single-parent households.

This brief looks at food and housing insecurity from April 23, 2020, to March 29, 2021, and examines hardship by race, ethnicity, and family type using data collected from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The data were collected over the Phases 1, 2 and 3, with each Phase representing roughly three months.

The survey has been a useful tool in gathering data in a swift and efficient manner to assess and measure how the current recession is affecting American households and families on various fronts such as employment status, education disruptions, financial difficulties, mental health, transportation, vaccinations, and more.

Key Takeaways:

+ Thirty-five percent of Black and Hispanic households reported housing insecurity compared to 14 percent of white households.

+ Households with children reported higher levels of housing and food hardship than the overall group of respondents.

+ Single or unmarried parents (regardless of the presence of other adults in the household) reported the highest levels of both food and housing insecurity over the survey period, while married adults without children in their household had the lowest levels.

Housing Insecurity

Respondents in the Household Pulse Survey were asked, “How confident are you that your household will be able to pay your next rent or mortgage payment on time?” We define households as experiencing housing hardship if they had deferred payments for the next month or had slight to no confidence in making mortgage and rental payments next month. As seen in Figure 1, over the course of the survey, Black and Hispanic respondents consistently reported the highest levels of difficulty with housing payments. On average over the survey period, Black and Hispanic respondents were more than twice as likely to experience housing hardships than white households.

Figure 1

As shown in Figure 1, there is a significant drop from July 16 to August 19 in the number of respondents answering they are not confident about meeting housing payments for the next month. This has less to do with a decrease in housing hardships and may be due to the accompanying sampling changes and changes in survey response rates due to the transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3. However, it is promising to observe slight downward trends for most groups in the past two months.

Housing hardships were also felt unevenly across family structures. This article looks at families by marital status, regardless of the presence of other adults, and presence of children in the household.  Households with children consistently reported higher levels of housing insecurity in comparison to households without children and the overall households in the sample. As Figure 2 shows, on average, 36 percent of unmarried parents experienced hardship, compared to roughly 21 percent sample-wide, nearly 68 percent higher. Similar to Figure 1, Figure 2 also shows a significant drop in the reported incidence of housing insecurity during the same period. As mentioned before, it is unclear if this is due to changes in the survey response rates as opposed to a real drop in housing insecurity.

On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan into law, the American Rescue Plan, which included $25 billion for emergency rental assistance and $5 billion in housing vouchers for those who were homeless, at the risk of homelessness, and those fleeing domestic violence, trafficking, stalking or assault. As seen in both Figure 1 and Figure 2, housing insecurity levels begin to taper off by Week 27, the last week of Phase 3, of the Household Pulse Survey. The survey results for Week 27 were taken from March 17, 2021, to March 29, 2021, shortly after the passage of the American Rescue Plan. There was also a ramping up of vaccination efforts and increased employment in March. Together with the American Rescue Plan, this brought more relief and security to people. Between Weeks 26 and 27, housing insecurity dropped by 18 percent in the overall sample, with a 22 percent drop in Hispanic households.

Figure 2

Food Insecurity

Just as with housing hardships, Black and Hispanic families have reported the highest levels of food insecurity over the survey period. Respondents in the survey were asked, “In the last 7 days, which of these statements best describes the food eaten in your household?.” In this report, we define adults reporting “sometimes” or “often not having enough food” as being food insecure. As shown in Figure 3, white households consistently reported the lowest levels of food insecurity compared to Black and Hispanic households, and households in the sample overall. Over the period examined, slightly over 20 percent of Black households and 18 percent of Hispanic households reported having food hardship, 13 and 10 percentage points higher than white households, respectively.

Figure 3

Similar to housing insecurity, households with children consistently reported the highest levels of food insecurity during the survey period. As indicated in Figure 4, this was especially true for unmarried parents. The incidence of food insecurity was nearly 70 percent higher for households with children than those without. Food insecurity was about 110 percent higher for unmarried parents as compared to households with married parents.

Figure 4

In the week since the passage of the American Rescue Plan, food insecurity has dropped by 18 percent across the board, with the largest difference thus far for Black households and households with children. In late March the USDA announced a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through the American Rescue Plan among other actions from the USDA to address food insecurity during the recession.


Households with children, particularly households of unmarried parents with children, were hit harder by the pandemic than overall households in the sample. However, unmarried parents, particularly with no other adults present in the household, almost consistently reported the highest levels of food and housing insecurity in the survey.

Over the survey period, approximately 41 percent of unmarried parents with no other adults in the household reported housing insecurity compared to 35 percent of unmarried parents with other adults in the household. The overall average of housing insecurity among respondents was approximately 22 percent. Similarly, 23 percent of households headed by unmarried parents with no other adults present reported food insecurity compared to 11 percent of the overall rate.

As mentioned in this brief, the food and housing insecurity levels fell during the last week of the survey going from March 17, 2021, to March 29, 2021. The American Rescue Plan was signed into law on March 11, 2021 and may have helped to alleviate some of the hardship levels in the overall sample though a more detailed analysis of the impact of the latest COVID relief bill has yet to come.

The CARES Act passed in late March 2020 was an important piece of legislation in ensuring that the economic pain from coronavirus recession could be staunched to some degree. An analysis of the Household Pulse Survey’s Phase 1 data by Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan found that despite the relatively high unemployment rate at that point, the CARES Act was successful at staunching the pain during the early months of the pandemic. But even if Congressional action was able to keep hardship levels stable overall, the picture looks a little different for households by race and family structure. Black and Hispanic households, and households of unmarried parents with children continuously saw higher levels of food and housing hardship and more fluctuation in the reported incidence of both hardships.

The unequal burden of the recession has been widely reported and the findings in this article demonstrate a need for creating a recovery that is equitable and sustained. It should address the structural inequities that are causing a disproportionate amount of pain to Black and Hispanic households and households with children, particularly single-parent households.

This first appeared on CEPR.

Simran Kalkat is an intern with the Domestic Program at the Center for Economic Policy Research. Julie Yixia Cai is an economist on the domestic team at CEPR, where she works on a variety of issues relating to labor market conditions, racial and gender disparities, economic well-being, poverty, and social policy.