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Hardship and Well-being in the United States after the CARES Act

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By H. Luke Shaefer, Patrick Cooney, Richard Rodems, and Marybeth J. Mattingly


Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in early March, the U.S. economy has ground to a halt. With businesses shuttered, many schools and child care providers closed, and many forced to stay home, the share of Americans out of work has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a nearly $2 trillion spending bill that included provisions to provide income support to U.S. households in an effort to reduce hardship. Congress is currently debating a second relief package, as critical provisions in the CARES Act expire.

The purpose of this brief is to review a variety of data, including nationally representative surveys that seek to measure material hardship directly, in an effort to assess the current state of material hardship in the United States, in the midst of the COVID crisis, but after the implementation of the CARES Act. Dozens of news articles since the crisis began paint a picture of widespread hardship, with accounts of households struggling to access government relief, unable to afford basic necessities, and experiencing long lines at food pantries and other private charities. On the other hand, recent studies offer evidence based on simulations that CARES Act measures may have stabilized, or even reduced, annual income poverty rates compared to pre-COVID levels.

Relying on evidence from numerous sources — the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, the COVID-19 Impact Survey, fielded by NORC at the University of Chicago, and the Urban Institute’s Coronavirus Tracking Survey — we see that high rates of material hardship have persisted throughout the pandemic, long after the implementation of CARES Act measures. Rates of hardship are particularly high among households with children. While hardship remains high, it is impossible to assess the exact degree to which measures of material hardship have risen in the COVID era because of differences in measures and survey administration.

There is also considerable evidence that CARES Act provisions have been critical in preventing hardship from increasing to levels far higher than we see today. The best evidence suggests that this historic influx of federal aid has, at best, helped stabilize US households at pre-pandemic levels of hardship, which were already quite high. Yet with unemployment still in double-digits, the vast majority of one-time economic impact payments already delivered, unemployment provisions set to expire, and many state and local eviction moratoriums lifted, we can expect significantly heightened hardship to emerge unless new assistance is comparable to that in the CARES Act. Further, it is evident that even with this relief, high numbers of individuals and families continue to struggle, warranting a closer look at policies that further expand assistance.

Key Findings

  • Some evidence indicates that rates of some hardships have stabilized or declined from their peak after implementation of key CARES Act provisions, yet hardship remains high
  • Throughout the pandemic, more than 1 in 6 households have reported not being able to afford food when needed
  • Currently roughly 10 percent of adults report failing to make timely rent or mortgage payments and 17 percent have slight or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent
  • Households with children report considerably higher rates of hardship than those without
  • Elevated levels of hardship demonstrate the need for expanded federal income support to ensure the material well-being of families


What is the state of material well-being among American households more than three months after the passage of the CARES Act? Looking at multiple measures of hardship from three nationally-representative surveys, the picture that emerges is one of continued financial and material precarity.

Evidence indicates that federal income support measures have been critical to the financial well-being of US households. But, it appears that historic levels of government relief have, at best, only stabilized already high levels of material hardship, and rates are poised to increase should government aid be reduced.

Going forward, we urge policymakers to closely examine direct measures of material hardship alongside estimates of income poverty. Scholars have long understood household income to be an imperfect measure of well-being, failing to provide an accurate measure of the economic hardships households face. This is particularly true in the current moment, when employment, wages, and government assistance are in flux. With so much uncertainty, special attention should be paid to data sources that seek to understand households’ lived experiences.

Drawing from the hardship evidence presented here, we argue that further aid should place a greater emphasis on households with children, who experience the highest rates of hardship. These families have been doubly disadvantaged by employment losses and the loss of school-based support services prompted by school closures.

Once again, it is also worth emphasizing just how impactful the CARES Act seems to have been, in large part through the implementation of expanded unemployment insurance, which dramatically broadened the share of American workers that qualify for assistance, and substantially increased the payments unemployed workers receive. Tens of millions of Americans have lost work since the start of the pandemic, yet there is some evidence that some measures of material hardship, while still quite high, have stabilized as a result of expanded unemployment assistance. New research concludes that expanded assistance helped to prop up spending, especially among low-income families, giving unemployed workers cash that they would not have otherwise had, and likely preventing a much worse economic downturn. Though elements of expanded unemployment assistance will remain in effect through the end of the year, unemployed workers are no longer receiving the additional $600 weekly payment from the federal government.

Despite the success of this historic intervention, federal lawmakers are now considering reductions to federal unemployment assistance in the next relief package, even as the daily average of new COVID-19 cases has more than tripled since late March, and the unemployment rate remains above 11 percent. The high rates of material hardship that we have reviewed here indicate that more assistance is needed, but at minimum lawmakers should continue expanded unemployment assistance at its current scale, given the extent to which it has blunted disastrous levels of material hardship thus far.

The available evidence provides strong support that more income support measures by the federal government are merited. A counterfactual world without the CARES Act is undoubtedly one with higher rates of income poverty and material hardship. Though high rates of hardship persist, current efforts appear to have blunted even more widespread hardship. Doing more will be critical. And given the success of other affluent democracies in containing the economic fallout of the pandemic, there is considerable reason to think that the United States can do even better than it has already.

Download a PDF of the full policy brief