Poll: As the Delta variant continues, 38% of U.S. households report facing serious financial problems in the past few months, despite two-thirds receiving government assistance

For immediate release: October 12, 2021

Boston, MA – According to a new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll, 38% of U.S. households report facing serious financial problems in the past few months, as the Delta variant outbreak has extended health and economic problems faced by households over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure 1). These serious financial problems are cited despite 67% of U.S. households reporting they have received financial assistance from the government in the past few months.

This poll, Household Experiences in America During the Delta Variant Outbreak, was conducted August 2 – September 7, 2021, among 3,616 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 section below for further details.

There is a sharp income divide in serious financial problems faced by households, as 59% of those with annual incomes below $50,000 report facing serious financial problems in the past few months, compared with 18% of households with annual incomes of $50,000 or more. Another significant problem for many U.S. households is losing their savings during the COVID-19 outbreak. Nineteen percent of U.S. households report losing all of their savings during the COVID-19 outbreak and not currently having any savings to fall back on.

In housing, at the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction ban expired, 27% of renters nationally reported serious problems paying their rent in the past few months.

In health care, 18% of households report anyone in their household has been unable to get medical care for a serious problem in the past few months when they needed it, with 76% of those unable to get care reporting negative health consequences as a result. And while 42% of households report using telehealth in the past few months with wide reported satisfaction (82% satisfied), 64% of those using telehealth say they would have preferred an in-person visit over telehealth in their last visit.

“While Americans have widely received help from the government during the COVID-19 outbreak, millions are still having very serious problems with their finances, health care, and their children’s education,” 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 Chan School. “These problems are concentrated in families who earn less than $50,000 a year, with millions of households who have lost their savings and have nothing to fall back on.”

When it comes to their children’s education, 69% of households with children in grades K-12 last school year report their children fell behind in their learning because of the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 36% of all households with children in K-12 reporting their children fell behind a lot (see Figure 2). Thinking about the upcoming school year, 70% of households whose children fell behind last school year believe it will be difficult for children in their household to catch up on education losses from last school year.

In a period when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has found that reported hate crimes in the U.S. have increased, an examination of different racial and ethnic minority households’ personal experiences in the past few months shows stark fears of being threatened or attacked (see Figure 3). One in four Asian households in the U.S. (25%) report fearing someone might threaten or physically attack them because of their race/ethnicity in the past few months, while 22% of Native American households, 21% of Black households, 8% of Latino households, and 7% of white households also report this.

View the complete poll findings.

Figure 1
Figure 2Figure 3Methodology

The poll in this study is part of an ongoing 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, Emeritus Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; John M. Benson, Senior Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP; Mary G. Findling, Assistant Director of HORP; 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; Vickie Walton-James, Senior Supervising Editor, National Desk; Marcia Davis, Supervising Editor, Race and Identity, National Desk

Interviews were conducted online and via telephone (cellphone and landline), August 2 – September 7, 2021, among a nationally representative, probability-based sample of 3,616 adults age 18 or older in the U.S. Data collection was conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese by SSRS (Glen Mills, PA), an independent research company. The survey examined experiences of households in the U.S. as a whole, in the four largest U.S. cities (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston), on households by race/ethnicity (including Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native Americans) nationally, on households with children, and on households in rural America. The margin of sampling error, including the design effect, was ±3.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level for national data.

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 3,177 respondents completed the questionnaire online, 83 by calling in to complete, and 356 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 2020 Current Population Survey (CPS). Weighting parameters included: gender, age, education level, race/ethnicity, region, and party identification.

 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.

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Photo: AP

For more information:

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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