Dec 20, 2021
When the pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020, Anna Gassman-Pines and her colleague Elizabeth Ananat were already conducting a text message survey among service workers who had children. As early-pandemic lockdowns and business closures began, Gassman-Pines and Ananat were able to pivot and began asking the people they were surveying about job and income loss, challenges that stemmed from school and childcare shifts, whether they were able to access government benefits, and about their own mental health. In this podcast episode Gassman-Pines offers an overview of their findings and discusses how what they learned fits within the larger context of low-wage work in the United States.
Dave Chancellor: [00:00:04] Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'm Dave Chancellor and, for this episode, I got to speak with Anna Gassman-Pines about the experiences early in the COVID-19 pandemic of parents who worked in service occupations. Now, before the start of the pandemic, Gassman-Pines and her colleagues were already doing a text message survey with workers that looked especially at how the precariousness of their work schedules affected other areas of their lives. And so when the pandemic hit, they were able to pivot and ask about many of the issues that especially impacted lower earning parents like income loss, shifts to remote learning or changes in child care challenges, accessing benefits, and mental health struggles. And even though we're around a year and a half into the pandemic, these are things that many families are still very much working through today. So let's turn to the interview. Dr. Gassman-Pines, thanks for being here for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast. So you are the WLF BASS Connections Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology at Duke University, right? Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of research that you do?
Anna Gassman-Pines [00:01:21] Absolutely, and thanks so much for having me. My research focuses on understanding contextual influences on the well-being of low income children in the United States, and in particular, I'm interested in really understanding how parents experiences outside the home in labor markets, in low wage jobs, accessing social services spill over to the home and ultimately affect families and children's well-being.
Chancellor [00:01:51] Today we're talking about how lower income working parents were kind of doing in the early months of the COVID 19 pandemic and you have a study that you've done with Elizabeth Ananat that ended up giving us a lot of insights into the picture of people's day to day. But that's not how the two of you kind of originally set out to do this study, right? What was the actual plan here?
Gassman-Pines [00:02:14] That's right. So at the beginning of this study, we were interested in two big questions. One is understanding how common schedule changes are for hourly working parents who are working in the service sector. So working in retail, food service or hotel jobs. How common is it for their work schedule to be changed from the schedule that was originally posted or shared with them? And what are the consequences of those schedule changes for the well-being of both those parents and their children? So that was the first big question. The second big question was to try to understand whether. Local regulations that hold service sector employers that they had to give their employees more advance notice and to compensate their employees for changes made to the work schedule after it was shared would either alter the likelihood of those last minute changes or make their consequences less negative for those families. So, in other words, would a local law that tries to make schedules more predictable, improve well-being for working parents and their families, either by making schedule changes less common or by making them less costly?
Chancellor [00:03:32] You had a wave of this study in the field in the early months of 2020, so you kind of got like a real time look at what happened right around the middle of March.
Gassman-Pines [00:03:44] That's right. So the way that our data collection works is we actually ask our participants to answer daily survey questions. The surveys each day are quite short, but they allow us to get real time information about whether parents work, what their work hours were, whether there were any unanticipated changes to their work schedule and reports about their own and their children's well-being each day. And we had just launched another wave of data collection starting in mid-February, where we were asking these parents to provide two weeks of 14 days or these daily survey reports. And as people were enrolling in that wave over time and those two weeks were starting, that was right when the COVID-19 pandemic kind of burst onto the scene. And what we could really see was almost in real time just how quickly parents lost access to work as restrictions were put into place and how immediately that affected their family well-being.
Chancellor [00:04:52] I know for a lot of researchers when the pandemic hit and a lot of these quarantine restrictions kind of came into place, it kind of messed things up, I guess, in terms of study. But you were doing like a text message study, right? So this is in some ways, socially distant-friendly.
Gassman-Pines [00:05:08] That's right. So this study was set up to use technology from the very beginning. We use text messages for sending and receiving all of our survey questions. And that is for a few reasons. One. Almost everyone has a basic mobile phone that is capable of simple text messaging at this point, so cell phones have really become ubiquitous. So there are way of reaching all different types of people. But by using text messages instead of a more standard phone survey, people can participate every day in a way that works for them and that allows them to continue to balance their own other work and family demands. So those surveys are sent out each night at seven p.m., but someone might not be able to answer until midnight, and that's totally fine. So we were set up to use this technology from the very beginning, even well before the pandemic and back in 2019. And we'd been communicating with our sample about the study, using phone and text all along. And so we were really in a strong position to continue that work through the pandemic without having to make any changes to the way that we were asking our participants to share information with us.
Chancellor [00:06:24] So what sort of things were you asking these workers and these parents, especially as you shifted into, you know, pandemic mode?
Gassman-Pines [00:06:35] So once the pandemic hit and we saw how quickly parents work lives were changing, we did pivot to field additional one time surveys to the sample over time. That allowed us to really get a lot more details from them about how they were experiencing the pandemic. So these included in addition to information about their job loss and changes to work. We also gathered information about. Loss of income, both income from earnings, but also income from other sources like government support. We continue to ask questions about parents’ mental health. We have a lot of detailed information about access to social services, both kind of traditional programs that have existed for a long time, as well as programs that were put into place in response to the pandemic. And a lot of other questions about the challenges with balancing work and care in this moment. So, for example, in the fall wave that we fielded in fall of 2020, we asked about remote or in-person child care or school, how where children were and how often schooling or care had been disrupted because of the pandemic.
Chancellor [00:07:57] Walk us through some of the results here. What were people telling you about? I think, Early on with the job loss, I know a lot of people lost their jobs in that last half of March of 2020. What did that look like for the people that you were talking to you?
Gassman-Pines [00:08:12] Keeping in mind that our sample was folks who are all working in the service sector, which, as we know, has been really hard hit by the pandemic and we saw that in our sample too. So about 40 percent of our sample was laid off during those early months of the pandemic. And for those who were with who were laid off, they experienced substantial losses of income. So we ask a pretty simple question which is asking folks to think back and compare their income now to what it was pre-pandemic. And we ask them to not report the exact dollar figure because that's pretty hard to figure out, but we ask them to put that number into general buckets. Is it basically the same as it was before the pandemic? Maybe it's higher or was it less than before the pandemic? And if it was less, was it more than half of what you had before the pandemic? And so what we see for those who lost jobs is the most common thing is that their income has fallen by more than 50 percent. This is a large income loss for folks who were not making a lot of money to begin with. And the consequence of that has been a big increase in material hardship. So what we're seeing in our sample is big increases in food insecurity from pre-pandemic and also trouble with basic things like being able to pay rent or mortgage.
Chancellor [00:09:47] And I'm curious about some of these mental health questions that you ask, because this is for this been hard for everybody, right? But for people who were experiencing large material hardships, that's going to be really hard, right?
Gassman-Pines [00:10:01] Yes, that's right, so we have asked throughout the pandemic questions about parents mental health, both general anxiety and depression we use for each of those. Validated to question screeners that basically could give any practitioner, a researcher, health professional, a sense that this person is at pretty high risk for either generalized anxiety or depression. And what we found is that throughout the pandemic, half of the parents in our sample are screening positive for likely anxiety, depression or both.
Chancellor [00:10:38] You had mentioned before looking at some of the government programs that folks may have been either trying to take up. How were those helping or were folks able to access things that made a difference?
Gassman-Pines [00:10:51] So there's really two important takeaways from our findings around access to government support. So big takeaway number one is the CARES Act, and the government supports that were provided in response to the pandemic did help in stabilizing family income. At the same time, though, they relied on. Antiquated systems that were, in many cases, understaffed and underfunded pre-pandemic, with the implications being that not everyone who was eligible for benefits was able to get them. So taking unemployment insurance, for example, so unemployment insurance is our main safety net program for people who lose jobs. Access to unemployment was massively increased in response to the pandemic so that many, many more workers, nearly all workers, were eligible to receive unemployment insurance, and it was also made more generous to acknowledge the tremendous financial need during this time. But in our sample, nearly everyone who was laid off tried to apply for unemployment insurance, but many were not actually able to get their benefits. Some couldn't get through the process because it was too cumbersome or difficult, or they didn't have the right technology. But most of them simply just hadn't received benefits, even though they were able to apply and were eligible. The benefits just hadn't arrived yet. And unfortunately, there are racial disparities in the likelihood of that happening. So in our sample, the black families were much more likely to have gotten through the application process, but not yet received their unemployment insurance at the time of our survey. Then the white families in our sample,
Chancellor [00:12:56] You study families with children and how sort of this precarity sometimes affects families and how do we kind of situate this in the longer term? I mean, is this just a symptom of kind of like a broader issue that a lot of lower income families have in our country?
Gassman-Pines [00:13:15] That's a great question, and I do think that what we're seeing families struggling with now is really only a heightened version of what families were already struggling with before the pandemic. So, for example, in our sample in the fall of 2019, of all the days that we surveyed families, they told us that they had some kind of anticipated change to their work schedule, like having a shift canceled at the last minute, having a shift added on at the last minute, having their hours changed in some way that was happening on about 11 percent of all the days. So when you think about 11 percent of days, what that tells you is that one once out of every 10 days work is not going as planned, which means rearranging child care and other responsibilities. And you can imagine the kind of stress and strain that this was putting on parents under the best of circumstances in a strong economy before this pandemic. And so what the pandemic has really done is heightened all those stresses and strains and made much more visible to two more people. How precarious this balance is of trying to manage unstable work schedules and care responsibilities for young children.
Chancellor [00:14:44] What are some of the other implications of this study? What are you looking at?
Gassman-Pines [00:14:49] I think the big implication is that more supports for working families are needed. It could include thinking more about. How to smooth and streamline access to these programs and support supporting state and local governments in administering benefits and reducing hurdles for families. And additionally, we should be thinking about ways to strengthen our systems for addressing families mental health needs.
Chancellor [00:15:25] Thanks again to Professor Anna Gassman-Pines for talking about her work with us. You can give her follow on Twitter at @AGPines. The Institute for Research on Poverty is the National Research Center on Poverty and Economic Mobility, funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The positions expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Institute for Research on Poverty or ASPE. You can learn more about IRP and the other resources we offer at irp.wisc.edu. Thanks for listening.