United Way COVID Study reveals wide variety of impacts

MUSCATINE, Iowa–United Ways of Iowa partnered with researchiQ at the University of Northern Iowa to commission a survey about the financial impacts of COVID on Iowa households. The three main concerns reported by respondents were a second wave of virus activity and closures, a household member contracting COVID-19, and mental health issues. Families with household incomes below $50,000 reported significantly higher concerns for paying for food, utilities, and rent or mortgages.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over a third of Muscatine County households were living below the ALICE income threshold and not able to pay their most basic living expenses on a regular basis. In most cases, this was despite being employed,” said Shane Orr, Executive Director of United Way of Muscatine. “That’s why we recently shifted our focus to helping households on the path to self-sufficiency. We knew that the financial concerns of these residents had likely been amplified over the past nine months, so we were especially interested in hearing from them.”

The survey asked households about their financial status before, during, and since COVID shutdowns. It was in the field from Sept. 28 until Nov. 2, prior to the current spike in cases in Iowa over the past several weeks. The response received met the researcher’s goals of a representative sample of Iowans in terms of geography, age, income levels, and ethnicity. The study identified several major themes:

COVID has unevenly impacted Iowa families. Respondents with household income below $50,000 were significantly more likely to report loss of income or increased expenses since the pandemic began than higher income groups. These respondents were most likely to report working in the areas most disrupted by COVID including hospitality, food service, retail and heath or social assistance.

The study also highlighted the fragility of many Iowa household’s financial situations. The percentage of respondents who indicated they could not cover one month of expenses before COVID was 18%; it increased to 31% at the time of the survey. Most respondents received a federal stimulus payment and used it to cover household expenses like food, housing and utilities, but it was not enough to cover even one full month of expenses.

COVID-19 has impacted Iowa’s workforce, particularly in the area of childcare. 6% of respondents indicate they continue to be unable to work at all due to childcare issues and an additional 10% indicate they are working reduced hours due to childcare issues. Extrapolated over Iowa’s total workforce of 1.5M workers – approximately 90,000 are not working at all and 150,000 are not working as much as they could due to childcare issues.

There is a growing population of newly needy. These are Iowa households who were able to keep their financial head above water pre-COVID, but now find themselves struggling to navigate resources that they’ve never had to access before like unemployment and food assistance. Respondents who reported the household’s primary source of income was a job over 35 hours a week was 74% pre-COVID and dropped almost 10 points to 66% at the time of the survey. Those relying on unemployment as the primary source of household income rose from one percent pre-COVID to 11% at the time of the survey. This finding was particularly true of people in their 20s and 30s.

“These themes are consistent with what our local United Ways are experiencing in their communities and what we’re hearing from the 130,000 calls received so far in 2020 on Iowa 211,” said Deann Cook, Executive Director of United Ways of Iowa. “This study contains an extraordinary amount of data about the experiences of Iowans that United Ways will use to shape public policy work and community investments. We are eager to share this new data with others interested in determining opportunities to support those most affected by COVID.”