Preventing deaths from COVID-19 depends on people who get it seeking treatment – which also allows authorities to track down whom they came in contact with to reduce spread.
But, as the economic pain and joblessness caused by the statewide lockdowns continue to grow, more Americans are experiencing severe strains on their personal finances. This threatens our ability to contain the pandemic because those feeling the most financial stress are much less likely to seek medical care if they experience coronavirus symptoms, according to my analysis of a recent Federal Reserve survey.
As an economist who studies how individuals make health care choices, I worry that in the coming months even more people will consider forgoing vital treatment to pay rent or some other bill – especially as the extended unemployment benefits, rent moratoriums and other relief are set to expire soon.
The Fed conducts a survey of the economic health of U.S. households every quarter, most recently near the end of 2019. In April, it conducted a supplementary but similar survey to quickly gauge how people were handling the coronavirus crisis. Results of both surveys were released on May 14.
The Fed tries to measure financial stress in three key ways. Its surveys ask respondents if they are unable to pay all their monthly bills, couldn’t cover a US$400 emergency expense, or are “just getting by” or worse.
Even before the pandemic hit, the picture wasn’t pretty. In October, when the fourth-quarter survey was conducted, 42% of employed respondents reported fitting at least one of these descriptions, while over 8% said they fit all three. Those figures jumped to 72% and 20% for low-income workers.
But by April, tens of millions of people who had jobs in October lost them as most nonessential businesses across the U.S. either closed or reduced their services. The unemployment rate shot up to 14.7% that month – the highest since the Great Depression – and is expected to climb further when the May data are released on June 5.
The Fed’s April survey, however, paints an even broader picture of the economic impact of the pandemic. In that survey, about 28% of the previously employed respondents said they either lost their job, were being furloughed, had their hours cut or were taking unpaid leave. This has been financially devastating to many, with 68% of this group reporting one of the stresses listed above and 28% saying they were experiencing all three, regardless of income level.
Separate questions in the surveys demonstrate just how strong the link is between financial and physical health.
The October survey also asks those respondents if they had skipped a doctor’s visit during the previous 12 months because of the cost. More than 20% of those who reported one of these financial stresses said they had, while almost 46% of those with all three said so.
In April, the Fed asked a more timely question: “If you got sick with symptoms of the coronavirus, would you try to contact a doctor?”
A third of those respondents who also said they’re experiencing all three financial stresses said “no.” This is especially significant because, unlike the October question, it describes a current, known threat, rather than referring to a previous medical issue of unknown severity. And the widely reported urgency and seriousness of the coronavirus suggests someone wouldn’t treat the decision to seek a doctor’s care or advice lightly.
That was back in April, less than a month into the coronavirus lockdowns. If the same questions were asked today, I believe the numbers would look a lot worse.
In the middle of a serious pandemic, we don’t want sick people avoiding treatment because they’re worried they won’t be able to put food on the table. This would likely worsen the spread of the coronavirus and make it a whole lot harder to contain.
As Congress debates additional measures to mitigate the economic and financial effects of the pandemic, it would be wise to keep in mind the connection between financial stress and individual decisions to seek medical care.
Relatively few Americans say they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, but many more believe they may have been infected or say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed.
Only 2% of U.S. adults say they have been officially diagnosed with COVID-19 by a health care provider, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. And 2% say they have taken a blood test that showed they have COVID-19 antibodies, an indication that they previously had the coronavirus. But many more Americans (14%) say they are “pretty sure” they had COVID-19, despite not getting an official diagnosis. And nearly four-in-ten (38%) say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have the disease.
Although few Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 themselves, many more say they know someone with a positive diagnosis. More than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) say they personally know someone who has been diagnosed by a health care provider as having COVID-19. A smaller share of Americans (20%) say they know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died as a result of having the coronavirus.
Some groups are more likely than others to report personal experiences with COVID-19. For instance, black adults are the most likely to personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease. One-third of black Americans (34%) know someone who has been hospitalized or died, compared with 19% of Hispanics and 18% of white adults. Black Americans (32%) are also slightly more likely than Hispanic adults (26%) to know someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Public health studies have found black Americans are disproportionately dying or requiring hospitalization as a result of the coronavirus.
Areas in the northeastern United States have recorded some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases and fatalities, and this is reflected in the Center’s survey. About four-in-ten adults living in the Northeast (42%) say they personally know someone diagnosed with COVID-19, significantly more than among adults living in any other region. People living in the Northeast (31%) are also the most likely to know someone who has been hospitalized or died as a result of the disease.
One aspect of personal risk for exposure to the coronavirus is whether someone is employed in a setting where they must have frequent contact with other people, such as at a grocery store, hospital or construction site. Given the potential for the spread of the coronavirus within households, risk to individuals is also higher if other members of the household are employed in similar settings. Among people who are currently employed full-time, 35% are working in a job with frequent public contact. Among those working part-time, almost half work (48%) in such a setting. For those living in a household with other adults, 35% report that at least one of those individuals is working in a job that requires frequent contact with other people.
Taken together, nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) have this type of exposure – either currently working in a job that requires contact with others, living in a household with others whose jobs require contact, or both.
Hispanics (at 48%) are more likely than either blacks (38%) or whites (35%) to have this type of personal or household exposure. An earlier Center analysis of government data found Hispanic adults were slightly more likely to work in service-sector jobs that require customer interaction, and that are at higher risk of layoffs as a result of the virus. In fact, the current Center survey found Hispanics were among the most likely to have experienced pay cuts or job losses due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Interpersonal exposure in the workplace is also more widespread among younger adults. And there is a 10 percentage point difference between upper- and lower-income Americans in exposure, with lower-income adults more likely to work in situations where they have to interact with the public, or to live with people who do.
Health experts warn that COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to people who have underlying medical conditions. In the survey, one-third of adults say they have such a condition. Among this group, nearly six-in-ten (58%) say that the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to their personal health. Among those who do not report having an underlying medical condition, just 28% see the outbreak as a major threat to their health. Americans who have an underlying health condition are also more likely than those who do not to say they’ve taken their temperature to check if they might have COVID-19 (47% vs. 33% of those without a health condition).
Self-reports of an underlying health condition vary greatly by age. Among those ages 18 to 29, just 16% say they have a condition; this rises steadily with age to 56% among those 65 and older. Whites are a little more likely than blacks and Hispanics to report having a health condition, but both blacks (at 54%) and Hispanics (52%) are far more likely than whites (32%) to say that the coronavirus outbreak is “a major threat” to their health.
“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”
COVID-19 has unleashed a dual threat to health equity in the United States: a pandemic that has sickened millions and killed tens of thousands and counting, and an economic downturn that has resulted in tens of millions of people losing jobs—the highest numbers since the Great Depression. The COVID pandemic underscores that:
Pandemics and economic recessions exacerbate disparities that ultimately hurt us all. Therefore, state and local leaders cannot design equitable response and recovery strategies without monitoring COVID’s impacts among socially and economically marginalized groups.¹ Data disaggregation should follow best practices and extend not only to public health data on COVID cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, but also to: measures of access to testing, treatment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and safe places to isolate when sick; receipt of social and economic supports; and the downstream consequences of COVID on well-being, ranging from housing instability to food insecurity.
Geographic identifiers would allow leaders and the public to understand the interplay between place and social factors, as counties with large black populations account for more than half of all COVID deaths, and rural communities and post-industrial cities generally fare worse in economic downturns. Legal mandates for data disaggregation are proliferating, but 11 states are still not reporting COVID deaths by race; 16 are not reporting by gender; and 26 are not reporting based on congregate living status (e.g., nursing homes, jails). Only three are reporting testing data by race and ethnicity.
While states and cities can do more, the federal government should also support data disaggregation through funding and national standards.
Our communities are stronger, more stable, and more prosperous when every person, including the most disadvantaged residents, is healthy and financially secure. Throughout the response and recovery, state and local leaders should ask: Are we making sure that people facing the greatest risks have access to PPE, testing and treatment, stable housing, and a way to support their families? And, are we creating ways for residents—particularly those hardest hit—to meaningfully participate in and shape the government’s recovery strategy?
Accordingly, policymakers should create space for leaders from these communities to be at decision-making tables and should regularly consult with community-based organizations that can identify barriers to accessing health and social services, lift up grassroots solutions, and disseminate public health guidance in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. For example, they could recommend trusted, accessible locations for new testing sites and advise on how to diversify the pool of contact tracers, who will be crucial to tamping down the spread of infection in reopened communities. They could also collaborate with government leaders to ensure that all people who are infected with coronavirus (or exposed to someone infected) have a safe, secure, and acceptable place to isolate or quarantine for 14 days. Key partners could include community health centers, small business associations, community organizing groups, and workers’ rights organizations, among others. Ultimately, state and local leaders should measure the success of their response based not only on total death counts and aggregate economic impacts but also on the health and social outcomes of the most marginalized.
Race or ethnicity should not determine anyone’s opportunity for good health or social well-being, but, as COVID has shown, we are far from this goal. People of color are more likely to be front-line workers, to live in dense or overcrowded housing, to lack health insurance, and to experience chronic diseases linked to unhealthy environments and structural racism. Therefore, state and local leaders should empower dedicated teams to address COVID-related racial disparities, as several leaders, Republican and Democrat, have already done.
To be effective, these entities should: include leaders of color from community, corporate, academic, and philanthropic sectors; be integrated as key members of the broader public health and economic recovery efforts; and be accountable to the public. These teams should foster collaboration between state, local, and tribal governments to assist Native communities; anticipate and mitigate negative consequences of current response strategies, such as bias in enforcement of public health guidelines; address racial discrimination within the health care system; and ensure access to tailored mental health services for people of color and immigrants who are experiencing added trauma, stigma, and fear. Ultimately, resources matter. State and local leaders must ensure that critical health and social supports are distributed fairly, proportionate to need, and free of undue restrictions to meet the needs of all groups, including black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities.
The Congressional response to COVID has been historic in its scope and speed, but significant gaps remain. Additional federal resources are needed for a broad range of health and social services, along with fiscal relief for states and communities facing historically large budget deficits due to COVID. Despite these challenges, state and local leaders must still find ways to take targeted policy actions. The following questions can help guide their response.
Who is left out?Inclusion of all populations will strengthen the public health response and lessen the pandemic’s economic fallout for all of society, but federal actions to date have not included all who have been severely harmed by the pandemic. As a result, many states and communities have sought to fill gaps in eviction protections and paid sick and caregiving leave. Others are extending support to undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families through public-private partnerships, faith-based charities, and community-led mutual aid systems. Vital health care providers, including safety net hospitals and Indian Health Service facilities, have also been disadvantaged and need targeted support.
Will protections last long enough?Many programs, such as expanded Medicaid funding, are tied to the federal declaration of a public health emergency, which will likely end before the economic crisis does. Other policies, like enhanced unemployment insurance and mortgage relief, are set to expire on arbitrary dates. And still others, such as stimulus checks, were one-time payments. Instead, policy extensions should be tied to the extent of COVID infection in a state or community (or its anticipated spread) and/or to broader economic measures such as unemployment. This is particularly important as communities will likely experience re-openings and closings over the next six to 12 months as COVID reemerges.
Have programs that meet urgent needs been fully and fairly implemented?Allexisting federal resources should be used in a time of great need. For example, additional states should adopt provisions that would allow families with school-age children to receive added Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and more communities need innovative solutions to provide meals to young children who relied on schools or child care providers for breakfast and lunch. States should also revise eligibility, enrollment, and recertification processes that deter Medicaid use by children, pregnant women, and lawfully residing immigrants.
Health, public health, and social infrastructure are critical for recovery and for our survival of the next pandemic, severe weather event, or economic downturn. A comprehensive public health system is the first line of defense for rural, tribal, and urban communities. While a sizable federal reinvestment in public health is needed, states and communities must also reverse steady cuts to the public health workforce and laboratory and data systems.
Everyone in this country should have paid sick and family leave to care for themselves and loved ones; comprehensive health insurance to ensure access to care when sick and to protect against medical debt; and jobs and social supports that enable families to meet their basic needs and invest in the future. As millions are projected to lose employer-sponsored health insurance, Medicaid expansion becomes increasingly vital for its proven ability to boost health, reduce disparities, and provide a strong return on investment. In the longer term, policies such as earned income tax credits and wage increases for low-wage workers can help secure economic opportunity and health for all. Finally, states and communities should invest in affordable, accessible high-speed internet, which is crucial to ensuring that everyone—not just the most privileged among us—is informed, connected to schools and jobs, and engaged civically.
These principles can guide our nation toward an equitable response and recovery and help sow the seeds of long-term, transformative change. States and cities have begun imagining and, in some cases, advancing toward this vision, putting a down payment on a fair and just future in which health equity is a reality. Returning to the ways things were is not an option.
Some Workers Losing Jobs and Health Insurance Remain Ineligible for Subsidized Coverage.
More than 70 percent of the 7.4 million workers with pre-pandemic employer-based insurance through industries now vulnerable to high rates of unemployment were found to be eligible for some assistance with health insurance (Medicaid or marketplace subsidies) if they lost their jobs. However, eligibility differs significantly between workers in states that have and have not expanded Medicaid.
Authors expand upon earlier work to show how varied levels of unemployment insurance provided through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program affects eligibility for subsidized coverage.
Authors find that whether unemployment compensation is included in determining eligibility for Medicaid and Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace subsidies affects workers living in states that expanded Medicaid differently than those living in states that do not.
If the additional federal unemployment compensation was not used to determine eligibility for health insurance assistance, 78 percent of expansion state workers in the most vulnerable industries would be eligible for assistance compared to 59 percent of their counterparts in the 15 nonexpansion states.
Under current law, more than 70 percent of expansion and nonexpansion state workers with pre-pandemic employer-based insurance through industries now vulnerable to high rates of unemployment would be eligible for some assistance with health insurance if they lost their jobs.
The current limits on marketplace subsidies mean that fewer workers are likely to be eligible for financial assistance in getting or maintaining health insurance coverage. At the same time, additional funds could help them meet other pressing needs. This research suggests that eligibility for financial assistance above 400 percent of the federal poverty level under current rules would address this problem.
About the Urban Institute
The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. For nearly five decades, Urban scholars have conducted research and offered evidence-based solutions that improve lives and strengthen communities across a rapidly urbanizing world. Their objective research helps expand opportunities for all, reduce hardship among the most vulnerable, and strengthen the effectiveness of the public sector. Visit the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center for more information specific to its staff and its recent research.