Full Interview: Tracing the Impacts of COVID-19 on Poverty, Hardship, and Well-Being among New Yorkers With Qin Gao, Sophie Collyer, and Chris Wimer
By: Maria Trifas (CC '21)
What has your team been working on during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Gao: Our team is looking at the immediate impacts of COVID-19 using the Poverty Tracker data.
Wimer: The Poverty Tracker is a quarterly survey of adults in New York City for tracking dynamics of poverty, hardship, and other forms of wealth and disadvantage.
What kind of metrics does the PovertyTracker survey evaluate?
Wimer: The Poverty Tracker collects annual data on three core measures of disadvantage: an income poverty measure (based on the supplemental poverty measure, an improved income poverty measure that incorporates the value of in-time benefits and after-tax resources), material hardship (people’s inability to meet their material expenses), and health problems/challenges. We collect those data annually and have quarterly surveys that look at topics important to New Yorkers. We have modules on assets and debt, a deeper dive into health, consumption, employment, etc., so we collect a wide variety of information about how New Yorkers are doing over time. It’s a nimble tool such that when new 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.
Collyer: We’re constantly in the field surveying New Yorkers, and in early March, we thought that we should probably add some questions about this pandemic that people are talking about and started drafting some questions. By the end of the week, the whole world had changed and we had a much more developed survey module asking specifically about the most immediate economic impacts. We were asking about the loss of work and income, and for our respondents who are small business owners, asking about needing to shutter their businesses and loss of freelance/self-employment income. With that, 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 saw was what you see in most news stories coming out at the same time: 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 before and they were much more likely to be in 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 For our Black and Hispanic respondents, those rates were even more elevated than pre-pandemic, specifically for the people who lost work. We also found that there was a 30% increase in the experiences of food hardship, just within 2 months of the pandemic among those who had lost work. We picked up on those immediate impacts, and now we’re working on another survey that we’ll field in the mid- and late summer asking about a more comprehensive set of hardships, like falling behind on rent and risks of eviction, as well as experiences of food insecurity and inability to make utility payments. I think we know that we’re in this pause position right now, with the moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs; there isn’t really much of a plan for what’s gonna happen afterwards, but we’ll have a sense of how many people are at-risk based on the data. We’re also asking about the social networks of support that people have turned to at this time, and how effective those networks have been.
Is this how you holistically keep track of New Yorker’s well-being?
Collyer: Exactly. What you often see in these circumstances is sometimes people who might appear to have economic security under some measures are turned to in these periods so they end up supporting a lot of other people, and this also means that we might not be capturing all of the hardships that people are facing.
How is the Poverty Tracker survey distributed to New Yorkers to get a representative picture of the population’s well-being?
Wimer: We have a rotating panel design, so 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. So, we contract with a survey research firm that does random-digit dialing. It’s exactly like it sounds: you dial random phone numbers in the city until you recruit enough panel members to join the panel. Then, the sample gets turned over to us and we have a whole team here, including masters students, undergraduate students, and full-time staff to conduct the surveys every three months. But, it is important to us that we have a representative sample across all boroughs, ages, demographics, etc., and the randomness of the sample ensures that. So, it is challenging to keep people in the survey for four years; our staff does a tremendous job of doing that. This entails a lot of phone work and email work in order to keep people engaged in the survey. Now, we hear stories about people who are home because of the crisis that might have been harder to reach before the crisis, but are now easier to reach. The opposite is also true; there are people who are now dealing with family members who might be sick or children who are home from school, so it’s a mix. We do the best we can and try to be sensitive to people’s circumstances.
Gao: In terms of survey content, 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 previously had a module on discrimination experiences; we have now renewed it and will field it in a few months to capture the nuanced experiences, especially among the Asian-American population during this pandemic: perceptions, experiences, and coping mechanisms. We do academic research, but we also share our findings with the general public, sometimes in partnership with our main funding agency, Robin Hood. We produce a series of brief reports, which highlight the results from our study, like how people have been initially affected by COVID-19.
Do you also share your work with New York City government officials to improve economic security efforts in the city?
Collyer: We have a close partnership with New York City Opportunity, an office in the mayor’s office that produces a similar poverty estimate to ours. Robin Hood also has close ties to a lot of city agencies and leaders, so they do a lot of work to bring our data to that platform and make sure that what we’re finding is communicated.
How many New Yorkers do you survey to get this data, and what are the criteria?
Wimer: It’s a rotating panel, so it changes over time, but our steady-state (the number of people who are routinely involved in the surveys) is about 2,000-2,500 people. 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. So, in total we survey 3,000-3,500 people with a broad over-sample of families with young children. So, it’s a moving target because we refreshed the panel in 2017 and are refreshing it right now with another 2,400 people. The key criteria to be in the sample is to be an adult over the age of 18 in New York City. We have historically surveyed only in Engish and in Spanish, but we’re now surveying in Mandarin as well. About a third of the sample has children, and we’re reaching all demographics across New York City (with the language criteria being a limiting factor).
Gao: One thing we emphasize in our research is to look at the racial and socioeconomic status disparities. We are more acutely aware of these disparities especially during this pandemic, and armed with our rich data we’re able to do that.
Throughout your work, have you found any misconceptions about your work or the state of New Yorkers during the pandemic?
Collyer: So, we’ve been working on this project for almost 10 years, but if you look at our long-term statistics, poverty, material disadvantage, and economic security 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’s great that that focus is there, but it didn’t come from nowhere; we were operating on a very fragile place to begin with, which is important to remember.
Which really emphasizes that a proposed return to “before the pandemic” isn’t necessarily an ideal time for many New Yorkers.
Wimer: When you look at poverty or any disadvantaged statistic year-by-year, you might see that there’s a slight decline or a slight uptick, or in the current context a more severe uptick/downtick, but what that misses is that it’s not the same people year-to-year that are experiencing poverty or disadvantage. So, when you look over time (one of the strengths of our study), there’s actually a much bigger percentage of New Yorkers who are experiencing hardship or a spell of poverty. It’s not just 20-21% from year-to-year; what that means is that there’s 30-50% experiencing an episode of poverty or disadvantage over time. So, there’s a lot of movement underneath those statistics that our study reveals. The COVID-19 crisis right now highlights that to a degree we didn’t understand much before. So, there’s a lot of people who are experiencing a spell of financial insecurity right now, and our survey tries to capture that. We try to come to an improved measure of poverty, but we also try to understand how well families are doing using broader measures, and we look at how that’s changing over time.
Gao: I think that our great strength is our rich measure of hardships and the disadvantages experienced by people: crowding in homes, disrupted work, childcare challenges. We also try to capture the dynamics of people experiencing poverty and hardship because people who “enter and exit” poverty all experience hardships at different times of their lives. So, we try to be nuanced in our measures. We also want to highlight how impactful our research has been. We do the research not purely as academics; we stay in close contact with state and local governments and many community social service agencies so that we can translate our findings into policies or services, especially so the general public can be more aware of what’s happening in a dynamic way.
That’s great because your research has a high potential impact to social programs for New Yorkers, such that publishing in academic journals isn’t the end goal of your work.
Gao: That’s why we have active mailing lists, and we post these briefs and reports on our website.
From the work that you’ve been doing, what is your perspective on the future of New Yorkers, with the re-openings and tracking impacts on New Yorkers. Do you see any trends in your data right now?
Collyer: There’s been this idea that there’s this 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 normal was. What we know anecdotally that this isn’t the case: people aren’t getting full schedules; they’re going to be working part-time; there’s going to be so much continued disruption that we need to keep an eye on. We’ll be very well-poised to do that and 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 are 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.
Gao: We cannot think of COVID-19 as the pre vs. post; it’s ongoing and it will be for a long time. For me, as an academic and as a mother, I think about how we’ll return to our work and how schools will re-open in the fall, how to keep my kids safe and balance my job with being a caregiver. One thing that I keep thinking about doing this research is imagining myself as one of the participants ( I’m not and am not allowed to be). Because it’s a study of New Yorkers, I can put myself into the study to answer all those questions and think about how I’m doing as a New Yorker and how I’ll use that experience to enrich this study.
Wimer: We need to keep these surveys short in order not to burden people, and it’s challenging to measure all of the impacts going on, including economic impacts, social impacts, and discrimination. Now, we’re reckoning with the protests and impacts of police brutality and systemic racism that are going on. Our surveys are typically 10-15 minutes, so we want to track and take the pulse of New York on a regular basis, but we struggle with being able to capture the whole complexity of what’s going on right now.
I bet you constantly want to keep adding new questions.
Wimer: We do. We want every survey to be an hour long.
For more information on Robin Hood and Poverty Tracker, see here. Robin Hood 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.