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The cost of the pandemic for American families

Families faced challenges in relationships, physical and mental health needs, as well as finances and job security

Ashley and Ethan Felix play outside with their children, from left, Briggs, 4; Andi Lou, 6; Beau, 8; and Wyatt, 12, at their home in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Ashley and Ethan Felix play outside with their children, from left, Briggs, 4; Andi Lou, 6; Beau, 8; and Wyatt, 12, at their home in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

During the pandemic, rich Americans were more likely to get richer, poor Americans were more likely to get poorer — and nearly everyone got a taste of government largesse.

Personal finances for most Americans, regardless of their income, marital status or whether they had kids remained about the same for a majority. But if income changed, lower- and middle-income folks on average got poorer, while the rich stayed financially healthy or gained more wealth, this year’s American Family Survey reveals.

Some couples drew closer as they went home to work or teach their children when schools and businesses closed. A small share experienced too much togetherness and relationships fell apart.

And federal stimulus aid reached the vast majority of Americans — those who needed it desperately and some who didn’t need it at all.

Overall, the story of the American family in the last year has been one of resilience, according to the seventh annual American Family Survey, released in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The nationally representative poll is conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

“The larger story is that the pandemic’s effects were not evenly felt across American families. And often, the increasing vulnerability to the pandemic was associated with categories of disadvantage that existed prior to the pandemic,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, who with Jeremy C. Pope co-directs the center at Brigham Young University and jointly co-wrote the study report. “So racial and ethnic minorities, lower-income folks, single mothers, these are all categories where we see increasing vulnerability. It’s pretty striking to me, for example, that 1 in 5 Hispanic respondents said a member of their family or extended family died from COVID, compared to nearly 1 in 10 white Americans.”

The survey of 3,000 American adults explores multiple aspects of family life, including relationships, economics, politics, health and culture. Besides looking at challenges from school closures and remote work, the survey asked how couples share housework, what worries working parents and the impact of federal aid during COVID-19.

Key questions include how race should be broached at home and taught in school. Respondents weighed in, too, on public policy proposals including a child allowance and whether Congress should approve two free years each of preschool and community college. It was fielded between June 25 and July 8, taking place just before the delta COVID-19 variant began circulating widely and the start of a new school year.

Amid the differences, an area of unique accord is the belief that it’s very expensive to raise children. Even among those making more than $80,000 a year, just one-fourth say the cost is affordable for most people. Overall, 54% say it’s not affordable.

But despite those costs and the pandemic, the last year bucked dire predictions about large-scale financial fallout. Karpowitz said while a significant share of Americans lost income because of reduced hours or job loss — especially part-time workers “who bore the brunt” — both 2020 and 2021 surveys found a dramatic drop in the percentage of Americans who said they experienced a significant economic crisis in the preceding 12 months, compared to pre-pandemic polling. “Significant” crisis included markers like not being able to afford food or see a doctor or being unable to pay an entire bill.

“The recent reduction in the experience of economic crisis was especially steep among parents with children in the home, declining about 20 points from a high of more than half in 2019 to under a third in 2021,” the study found.

“I think a lot of that can be traced to federal pandemic aid,” Karpowitz said. “That made a big difference in the lives of large percentages of Americans.”

Both the Trump and Biden administrations offered help, and experts say between 80% and 90% of Americans received some aid in the pandemic, from multiple stimulus payments to enhanced unemployment, boosted nutrition assistance and more. For those in precarious housing situations, an eviction moratorium provided at least temporary stability.

“I think this will long be seen as a moment where government aid was incredibly well justified and pretty darned successful, though I think it raises questions about the future,” Pope agreed. “Now that we’re coming out of the pandemic, a massive increase in government spending may make people nervous, justifiably. But I think the counterbalancing point you have to keep in mind is, without that government spending, the pandemic would have been quite a bit worse.”

Depends on circumstance

To see how differently the pandemic impacted even people who look like they have a lot in common, consider the families of two men enrolled in Brigham Young University’s MBA program.

Brett and Hannah Park, of Murray, Utah, married five years ago and have three little boys: Graham, 4, Cooper, 2, and Russell, 7 months old.

“We probably fit more in the cruise-along category,” Hannah Park, 27, said. When the pandemic hit, Brett Park, 28, worked from home on salary and could arrange his hours as he liked, as long as he got his work done. She was primarily a stay-at-home mom who did some professional photography.

He stopped commuting, saving money and time. So he enjoyed more time with his family, working in the yard and on cars and taking play breaks with the boys, which gave her some freedom, too. They took road trips and camping trips after things shut down.

They got — and appreciated — the stimulus, she said, because it helped them avoid student loans. But they had what she calls a “pretty nice setup,” where they didn’t seriously need the money.

Ashley and Ethan Felix and their children Briggs, 4; Beau, 8; Wyatt, 12; and Andi Lou, 6, left to right, have dinner together at their home in Provo, Utah,  on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. The seventh annual edition of the American Family Survey documents how families made it through the pandemic. The Felix family’s challenges included moving so Ethan could go to school full time and challenges getting needed care.
Ashley and Ethan Felix and their children Briggs, 4; Beau, 8; Wyatt, 12; and Andi Lou, 6, left to right, have dinner together at their home in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

His classmate, Ethan Felix, 36, now of Provo, Utah, lived a different pandemic year.

He’d always worked hard, starting a couple of companies after high school, before going to work for others and helping wife Ashley, 33, raise their kids: Wyatt, 12, Beau, 8, Andi, 6, and Briggs, 4.

“We totally took a hit,” he said, as the pandemic slammed them from multiple directions.

His wife had mostly stayed home with the kids, and worked part time at a gymnastics gym. The gym closed down.

He worked for an excursion company where companies could hold work retreats and customers could ride horses or fish. The company kept him as long as possible, then furloughed him. For several “scary” months, Ethan Felix didn’t work. “We didn’t know how we were going to make it, but it ended up being a blessing. It led us to where we are now,” Ashley Felix said, referring to the MBA program.

They got random help from friends, strangers and members of their Latter-day Saint congregation. The federal aid, though, was critical. “I bawled my eyes out with the stimulus. We needed that so badly,” she said.

Families that lost a job or had hours cut back fared much differently than the majority whose financial situations were largely unchanged. And single-parent households were 10 times more likely to experience an economic crisis than any other group in the survey.

The aid was overwhelmingly popular and many low-income people were pulled out of poverty or back from poverty by the stimulus bill, Pope said. Among those who received the aid, nearly three-fourths of those with annual incomes below $40,000 said they needed the money to get by, compared to 46% of middle income ($40,000-$80,000). Even among those with annual incomes above $80,000, more than 1 in 4 said they needed the money to get by.

Relationships

But government didn’t provide all the help. Americans have a lot of resilience to significant problems in part because families act as buffers, Pope said.

Stephanie and Mark Deppe, 39 and 45, respectively, moved to Springfield, Missouri, with Colton, 8, and Alaina, 5, to be near her parents. They hadn’t been there long when the pandemic hit and he was laid off from his new accounting job.

He was jobless for several months, but they were fortunate in that they’d been living with her parents while they looked for a house and he got enhanced unemployment benefits while he looked for a new job. Family and the stimulus, she said, helped them a lot. And other aid, including the subsequent monthly payments of the child tax credit, now helps with costs associated with the kids and school.

Mark and Stephanie Deppe enjoy a break from parenting. The Deppes, of Springfield, Missouri, have juggled work and bills during the pandemic after relocating to be near her parents. The 2021 American Family Survey explores how families like theirs juggled jobs, remote schooling and health. among other things the pandemic made a bit harder.
Mark and Stephanie Deppe enjoy a break from parenting. The Deppes, of Springfield, Missouri, have juggled work and bills during the pandemic after relocating to be near her parents.
Family photo

Sociologist Brad Wilcox said he believes people learned an especially important lesson in the pandemic: “How much family matters for people’s welfare.” A growing share of Americans say their families are stronger now. In many ways, COVID-19 increased the “sense of mutual dependence and mutual support,” he said.

“The ties that bind have grown tighter for those navigating COVID together,” said Wilcox, a survey adviser whose professional titles include director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. “On the downside, all the uncertainty, trials and tribulations made people not currently in a family a bit more cautious.”

There are parallels between those who struggled financially and those who struggled in their relationships, according to Pope. In both cases, the pandemic poured stress on those struggling beforehand.

“One of the overarching lessons from doing the survey over and over again is most people are made better off by their marriage, their family, their relationships,” Pope said. “But that is not a universal experience. There are people who have toxic family relationships of various sorts, their marriage being the key thing that can be toxic.”

Karpowitz said most romantic relationships weren’t changed by the pandemic. “It made them more aware of the support that their partner provides,” he said. “In both years, a majority of Americans in married or cohabiting relationships said the pandemic made them appreciate their partner more and a large percentage said the pandemic deepened their commitment.

“Relatively few people — maybe 1 in 10 or so — said the pandemic made them question the strength of their marriage or their relationships. And about a quarter said the pandemic increased the stress in their relationships. While some Americans are feeling challenged and stressed, many more than that found support and help from their partner.”

Finding mental, physical care

The survey asked about depression, anxiety and weight gain as markers for mental and physical health problems. Close to a third of Americans said they felt increased sadness or depression. Nearly 4 in 10 single, childless individuals said that was part of their pandemic story.

Being married made those slightly less likely, said Pope.

Most Americans said they didn’t have to seek physical or mental health care, but half said their mental health suffered. And half of those — a fourth overall — said they didn’t get the care they needed. Higher-income respondents were considerably less likely to say they couldn’t get care.

Having a partner again seemed to be a buffer, said Karpowitz. “In several places, we found that single folks or single people with kids were more likely to feel sadness or depression. That’s not blaming them. Having a partner is generally a helpful thing.”

Ashley Felix plays with her sons Wyatt, 12, left, and Briggs, 4, at their home in Provo, Utah, on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Like many others in the 2021 American Family Survey, the Felix family had to juggle when schools closed and they also lost some income as businesses closed down.
Ashley Felix plays with her sons Wyatt, 12, left, and Briggs, 4, at their home in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Ashley Felix was among those who tried to get mental health help and couldn’t.

In the pandemic, she grew closer to her husband, she said — and also further apart. They’d united on what was best for the family and decided on a drastic step: relocating from Wyoming to Utah so he could work on that advanced degree at BYU. But the process was very stressful.

And when the physical part of moving was done, she caved in a bit, she said — depressed, emotional, feeling somewhat lost. “It was exciting but too much at one time.” Star Valley, Wyoming, was so small there wasn’t even a stoplight, everyone knew each other and social distancing was easy amid wide-open spaces. Provo was entirely different and with everyone masked, the pandemic was literally in their faces.

Plus, with schools physically closed, she had to become teacher to four children in different grades. She had a teaching background, but their age range and needs made the task seem daunting.

She says she cried sometimes and even briefly felt jealous of Ethan, who was living a long-held dream to earn that MBA, while she felt a bit stuck. She sought therapy, but waiting lists were “outrageous.” She decided to help herself, pursuing her own lifelong dream to become a life coach, because she liked helping others and knew how it felt to struggle and overcome. Reaching that goal, she found joy again.

The survey found low-income individuals were the least likely to get the care they needed, with 33% of those who needed physical care and 53% of those who needed mental health care not getting it.

But the pandemic actually opened a treatment door for Stephanie Deppe’s daughter. Alaina was on a waiting list for speech therapy and so many people canceled appointments for fear of COVID-19 that they could squeeze her in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its research found 40% of people experienced an increase in anxiety and depression, in relationship problems, in substance abuse or in drinking in the pandemic.

“A lot of negative kinds of behaviors increased tremendously,” said Margaret Cochran, a mental health expert in San Jose, California, who has master’s degrees in education, social work and psychology, and a doctorate in transpersonal psychology.

She sees access to care as a severe problem because “most of us in the caretaking business, well, we don’t have any slots. We’re just packed. ... Not everybody is getting what they need.”

Her list of those who struggle is robust: health care providers, front-line workers, people who are not used to so much togetherness, people dealing with a sense of hopelessness or loneliness.

She worries about young people who’ve never been through this kind of difficulty before, she said. They feel like the world is ending and taking their future prospects with it. Folks in middle age are somewhat more comfortable with the challenges. But while older adults have overcome a lot, they’re struggling a great deal now, too. Their worlds have become small and lonely in some cases.

“There are these different kinds of vulnerabilities,” Cochran said.

Kids do best, she added, with “calm parents who can walk them through it, and say, ‘Yep, this is a rough time, but it’s OK. We have each other to get through it. Wear your mask. I love you. Clean your room.’”

Unfortunately, many parents are themselves struggling with mental illness. “They get really depressed or really anxious and it, of course, rubs off on the kids,” said Cochran.

“Just keep asking for help until you find it. One of the greatest skills any of us can have in life is persistence. The other is resilience.”

Photos and motivational messages are pictured at the Felix family home in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. The Felixes, like many polled in the 2021 American Family Survey, experienced financial, emotional and other challenges related to the pandemic. Ashley Felix made posters like this to cheer the family on.
Photos and motivational messages are pictured at the Felix family home in Provo on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News