Poll: 46% of U.S. households report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak

More than one-third of U.S. households with children also report serious problems keeping their children’s education going and internet connectivity issues during this time.

For immediate release: September 23, 2020

Boston, MA – According to a new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll, 46% of U.S. households report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak. Serious problems are reported across a wide range of areas during this time, including depleting household savings, serious problems paying credit card bills and other debt, and affording medical care.

Many of these problems are concentrated among households experiencing job or wage losses since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, households with annual incomes below $100,000, and Black and Latino households. For example, 46% of households in the U.S. report any adult household members have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had wages or hours reduced since the start of the outbreak. And among these households with job or wage losses during the coronavirus outbreak, about two-thirds (68%) report facing serious financial problems. This includes nearly half (48%) of households with job or wage losses who have used up all or most of their savings during the coronavirus outbreak, while an additional 11% report not having any household savings prior to the outbreak (see Figure 1).

In addition, there is a steep income gradient in serious problems faced by households, as a majority (54%) of all U.S. households with annual incomes below $100,000 report serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak. Serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak are also reported by majorities of Latino (72%) and Black (60%) households during this time.

This poll, The Impact of Coronavirus on Households Across America, was conducted July 1 – August 3, 2020, among 3,454 U.S. adults. Adults in this survey were asked to report on serious problems facing both themselves and others living in their households, so measures are reported as a percentage of households for all household-related questions. See the Methodology below for further details.

In healthcare, one in five households in the U.S. (20%) report household members have been unable to get medical care for serious problems when they needed it during the coronavirus outbreak. A majority of these households with anyone who has been unable to get care when needed (57%) report negative health consequences as a result.

“Before federal coronavirus support programs even expired, we find millions of people with very serious problems with their finances, healthcare, and with caring for children,” said Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health and Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis Emeritus at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Though we want to believe we are all in this together, findings show problems concentrated in people who earn less than $100,000, people who have lost wages or jobs, and Black and Latino Americans.”

When it comes to caring for children, 59% of households with children in the U.S. report experiencing serious problems during this time. This includes more than one in three (36%) facing serious problems keeping their children’s education going, and among working households, nearly one in five (18%) reporting serious problems getting childcare when adults need to work (see Table 1 for details).  In addition, internet connectivity is also a major issue for some during this time, as about one in three households with children (34%) either do not have a high-speed internet connection at home or report serious problems with their internet connection to do schoolwork or their jobs.

View the complete poll findings.



The poll in this study is part of an on-going series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of the following members at each institution.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:  Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Public Health and Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis Emeritus, and Executive Director of HORP; John M. Benson, Senior Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP; Mary G. Findling, Senior Research Specialist; Chelsea Whitton Pearsall, Research Coordinator.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Carolyn Miller, Senior Program Officer, Research-Evaluation-Learning; Jordan Reese, Director of Media Relations; Martina Todaro, Research Associate, Research-Evaluation-Learning.

NPR: Andrea Kissack, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Scott Hensley, Senior Editor, Science Desk.

Interviews were conducted online and via telephone (cellphone and landline), July 1 – August 3, 2020, among a nationally representative, probability-based sample of 3,454 adults age 18 or older in the U.S. Data collection was conducted in English and Spanish by SSRS (Glen Mills, PA), an independent research company. The margin of sampling error, including the design effect, was ±3.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The core of the sample was address-based, with respondents sampled from the United States Postal Service’s Computerized Delivery Sequence (CDS) file. Sampled households were sent an invitation letter including a link to complete the survey online and a toll-free number that respondents could call to complete the survey with a telephone interviewer. All respondents were sent a reminder postcard, which also included a QR code they could scan to be linked to the survey via a smart device. Households that could be matched to telephone numbers and that had not yet completed the survey were called to attempt to complete an interview. In order to represent the hardest-to-reach populations, the address-based sample (ABS) was supplemented by telephone interviews with respondents who had previously completed interviews on the weekly random-digit dialing (RDD) SSRS Omnibus poll and online using the SSRS Opinion Panel, a probability-based panel.

A total of 2,992 respondents completed the questionnaire online, 127 by calling in to complete, and 335 were completed as outbound interviews.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, the samples were weighted to match the distribution of the population based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey (ACS). Weighting parameters included: gender, age, education level, race/ethnicity, and region.

Respondents who were the only person living in a household were asked about their own experiences. Respondents who had anyone else also living in their household were asked about the experiences of anyone living in the household. Together these responses represent the experience of the household.

photo: AP/Nati Harnik

Nicole Rura
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. We are working with others to build a national Culture of Health enabling everyone in America to live longer, healthier lives. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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