Study finds negative impacts of COVID-19 unevenly distributed in Lancaster County

Lancaster
Lancaster

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — On Wednesday, Franklin & Marshall College and the United Way of Lancaster County released the results of their collaborative study of the coronavirus pandemic’s social, economic, and health impacts on Lancaster County.

The study involved two rounds of surveys facilitated by F&M’s Center for Opinion Research in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021.

“COVID-19 has impacted literally 100% of the world,” Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of the United Way of Lancaster County, said in a Zoom presentation of the study results on Wednesday.

However, Ressler said, “It’s impacted us in different ways, and we see this now today as many of us are getting back to a more normal [lifestyle] while others are still suffering [from] a lot of the different fallouts of COVID-19.”

The F&M and United Way of Lancaster County study looked at the impacts of COVID-19 on Lancaster County residents’ employment, housing, financial security, food insecurity, and stress.

The study’s results highlighted that the “effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — be they economic or social or mental-health-related — there have been serious effects, and these effects have been distributed unevenly,” Emily Marshall, assistant professor of sociology and public health at F&M, said in the presentation.

Researchers found that minority and low-income respondents were more affected by the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic than others.

“What we see in Lancaster County is something that we’ve also seen nationally,” Marshall said, “which is that people that faced disadvantages in terms of income, in terms of racism, in terms of language barriers before the pandemic, those inequalities have been made larger by the pandemic.”

COVID-19 impacts on work and income

Overall in the fall of 2020, 38% of survey respondents in Lancaster County reported that someone in their household had lost work since March of 2020. Of those households reporting work loss, the most common type of loss was a temporary layoff without pay or benefits. Others reported having their hours reduced or being permanently laid off.

While this 38% reflects work loss across the board, a breakdown of the results by race/ethnicity shows that minority respondents were more likely to have had someone in their households lose work than non-Latinx white individuals.

“More than half of the Latinx respondents to this survey reported that someone in their household had had some level of losing work,” Marshall said.

About 40% of Non-Latinx Black respondents also reported household work loss, while around 35% of non-Latinx white respondents reported lost work in their households.

Another survey question asked, “How worried are you about losing your job in the next three months?” Marshall explained. Fall 2020 survey results showed that Latinx and Black respondents were more likely to feel “extremely worried” than other respondents.

Marshall noted that the number of respondents who were “extremely worried” about impending job loss decreased in the 2021 round of the survey, although the 2021 results showed a similar pattern of racial/ethnic differences.

Marshall also noted that fear of losing one’s job in the next three months was more prevalent in households making less than $50,000 a year, while fewer respondents in households making more than $50,000 a year reported this concern.

In the fall of 2020, respondents were also asked, “How severe are the financial challenges that you have experienced as a result of COVID-19?”

Approximately half of the respondents said their financial strain due to the coronavirus was not severe at all, but a greater percentage of Black and Latinx respondents reported “very severe” financial strain (about 16%) than non-Latinx white or other race respondents (about 3%), Marshall said.

Lower-income respondents also reported more severe financial challenges from COVID-19 than higher-income respondents.

“That’s not surprising, but it is important to note and to keep a focus on that,” Marshall said. “Although we saw work loss being spread across people of different incomes, the financial challenges that resulted really did hit lower-income people harder in Lancaster County.”

COVID-19 impacts on housing and food insecurity

The study also investigated respondents’ sense of financial strain in paying their rent or mortgage before and after the pandemic began. Researchers found that in 2020, around 11% of responding households felt more strain in paying for housing than they did in 2019.

Respondents were also asked the same question again in the spring of 2021. At that time, about 13% of households felt more strained in paying their rent or mortgage in 2021 than they did in 2020.

The majority of respondents said the financial strain remained the same both from 2019 to 2020 and from 2020 to 2021.

Wei-Ting Yen, assistant professor of government at F&M, noted in the presentation of these results that the data do not reflect overall financial strain; instead, they provide a comparison of individuals’ sense of financial burden before the pandemic and during different points of the pandemic.

Respondents who reported more strain might have felt none before the pandemic, or respondents who felt less strain in 2021 than in 2020 might still be concerned about affording their rent or mortgage, just less so than they were during the peak of COVID-19.

Another topic investigated in the study was food insecurity. About 9% of survey respondents reported having to skip or reduce their meals due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, a breakdown of respondents by race shows that 27% of Hispanic respondents and 16% of non-Hispanic Black respondents reported skipping or reducing meals, compared to 6% of non-Hispanic white respondents.

Investigating food insecurity from another angle, the surveys found that 6% of households reported using food banks after the pandemic started. Notably, Yen said, of those households using food banks during COVID-19, 40% of them used food banks for the first time.

COVID-19 impacts on stress

To determine how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted stress levels of Lancaster County residents, researchers asked respondents questions in order to give them scores on the Perceived Stress Scale, which is a widely used tool for measuring stress.

Respondents were scored on a scale of one to 16, and a score of eight or higher was considered an elevated level of stress. Overall, one-quarter of respondents scored as having elevated stress in the fall of 2020.

Gender nonbinary individuals were significantly more likely to report higher stress levels than those identifying as male or female. Over 35% of nonbinary respondents scored eight or higher, compared to about 20% of females and about 15% of males.

Stress differences among age groups were also apparent in the study results. Respondents ages 18-34 were more likely to experiences elevated stress than older age groups.

A greater percentage of Latinx individuals (about 32%) demonstrated elevated stress levels than non-Latinx Black respondents (about 24%) or non-Latinx white respondents (about 16%).

Additionally, the study looked at respondents’ perceived seriousness of COVID-19 and related that to their stress levels. Those who viewed the coronavirus as somewhat or very serious experienced elevated stress at a higher rate than those who said it was “not too serious” or “not serious at all.”

Respondents who reported someone in their households losing work were more likely to demonstrate elevated stress than respondents who reported no one in their households losing work.

Considering how support systems can help individuals manage stress, the study also considered respondents’ number of friends. Over 50% of respondents who said they had no friends reported elevated stress, and that percentage decreased as individuals’ numbers of friends increased. Slightly more than 10% of respondents with more than five friends demonstrated elevated stress.

“We find that there’s certain factors that are associated with experiencing higher stress levels,” Harriet Okatch, assistant professor of biology and public health at F&M, said. “We think it’s really important for us to identify these groups so that supporters and mental healthcare providers can target these groups.”

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