Interview Highlights: Tracing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Poverty, Hardship, and Well-Being among New Yorkers WITH QIN GAO, SOPHIE COLLYER, AND CHRIS WIMER
Interview by: Maria Trifas (CC '21)
The following is a heavily condensed version of the full interview. If you're interested, read more here.
What has your team been working on during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our team is looking at the immediate impacts of COVID-19 using Poverty Tracker data. The Poverty Tracker is a quarterly survey of adults in New York City for tracking dynamics of poverty, hardship, and other forms of disadvantage.
policy or new quality of life concerns come up, we’re able to add questions pretty quickly to our surveys and take the pulse of what’s going on in New York City.
By mid-March, the pandemic was in full force and we had developed a new survey module asking specifically about its immediate economic impacts. With it, we were able to link that data to our earlier data sets to identify who was losing work and what their experiences were before the pandemic.
What we found was that the people who were losing work were more likely to be in disadvantaged circumstances beforehand, so they were much more likely to be in poverty or material hardship. For example, of the people who lost their jobs, 37% of respondents were rent-burdened (paying over 30% of household income on rent) prior to the pandemic.
Now we’re working on another survey asking about a more comprehensive set of hardships, like falling behind on rent and risks of eviction, as well as food insecurities and inability to make utility payments. We’re also asking about how effective social networks of support have been during this time.
How is the Poverty Tracker survey distributed to New Yorkers?
We have a rotating panel design: we recruited the current sample in 2015, and we follow up with people for four years. Every second year, we recruit more people into the panel via random-digit dialing. Random sampling is important to produce samples that are representative across all boroughs, ages, demographics, etc.
We also evaluate peoples’ use of government benefits and support, as well as employer-provided support, such as paid leave, childcare help, unemployment insurances, stimulus checks, and all those sets of support that people especially need to deal with the crisis. We have questions on discrimination experiences, and will field themin a few months to capture the perceptions, experiences, and coping mechanisms, especially among the Asian-American population, during this pandemic
What’s the demographic of New Yorkers surveyed?
Since it’s a rotating panel, it changes over time. We also have a sister research project called the Early Childhood Poverty Tracker, which is around 1,500 parents of young children, so it was children aged 0-2 in 2017. In total we survey 3,000-3,500 people with an emphasis on families with young children. We have historically surveyed only in English and in Spanish, but we’re now surveying in Mandarin as well to reach a broader demographic.
Any pandemic-related misconceptions you’d like to address?
We’ve been working on this project for almost 10 years, but if you look at our long-term statistics, poverty, material hardship, and economic insecurity were rampant in the city before this, and there’s a misconception in the idea that this is now the focus of a lot of people. It didn’t come from nowhere; we were operating on a very fragile place to begin with.
So a return to “before the pandemic” isn’t necessarily ideal for many New Yorkers.
So, there’s a lot of movement underneath those statistics that our study reveals, especially during. the COVID-19 crisis. We try to come to an improved measure of poverty, but we also try to understand how well families are doing using broader measures.
The impact of our studies comes from their comprehensive measure of hardships that reveal more effective ways for other institutions to help alleviate them.We stay in close contact with state and local governments and many community social service agencies so that we can translate our findings into
real policies or services.
What’s your perspective on the future trends that New Yorkers may face?
There’s been this idea that there’s an on-off switch for the city, like “everything’s re-opened and people are back to work!” so it’s just going to flip back to whatever this prior norm was. We know anecdotally that this isn’t the case: people aren’t getting full work schedules; they’re going to be working part-time. We’ll be very well-poised to track the downstream impacts that this has had that are more nuanced than the “stores have opened again” measure. We’ll be able to provide evidence of those changes and how people will be still struggling for a while.
So that’s a misconception with the phrase “re-opening the economy” as well? It isn’t an open door.
We cannot think of COVID-19 as the pre vs. post; it’s ongoing and it will be for a long time. It’s challenging to measure all of the impacts going on, including economic impacts, social impacts, and discrimination – plus, now we’re reckoning with the impacts of police brutality and systemic racism. With so many influencing factors, it’s likely that “post-pandemic” life will not return to the normalcy many people are imagining – after all, even our study struggles to capture the whole complexity of what’s going on right now.
For more information on Robin Hood Foundation and Poverty Tracker, see here. The Robin Hood Foundation also released two recent blog posts on COVID-19, Poverty & Food Hardship and Material Hardship. Also, check out the Robin Hood Report on Paid Sick Leave and COVID Policy Response, Early Childhood Poverty Tracker Report, and Latest Annual Report.