Measuring the Pulse of Oregon Households amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Damon Runberg

August 25, 2020

The U.S. Census Bureau developed the Household Pulse Survey in order to measure the experiences of households during the COVID-19 pandemic. This experimental data series is a valuable tool for us in understanding how the pandemic is impacting Oregonians at the household level.

The U.S. Census Bureau began collecting weekly responses on April 23rd, roughly a month after the onset of the direct impacts from the pandemic, and continued the weekly survey through the last week in July. There are a variety of questions asked of respondents to identify the various ways the pandemic has impacted their household, including loss of employment income, food scarcity, housing insecurity, delays in medical care, and impacts on K-12 education. We will work through the results to see how Oregon households are being impacted in these uncertain times.

As of the last week of the survey an estimated 1.7 million Oregonians lived in a house where someone experienced a loss in employment income. In many instances loss of employment income was due to businesses closing or layoff events. However, a large number of workers have seen their pay cut or hours reduced in response to the economic shock. According to the Small Business Pulse Survey, also developed by the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly one out of four businesses reduced the hours worked by paid employees. The loss of employment income is the most direct and important impact measured by the Household Pulse Survey. All other impacts measured by the survey are largely a result of this loss of income.
Although an estimated 1.7 million Oregonians lived in a house where someone saw their employment income decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of workers who have seen a net loss in income is likely much lower. Many workers have received additional unemployment insurance benefits due to federal legislation that added $600 to the weekly unemployment insurance benefit amount and expanded the program to assist self-employed workers and others not typically covered by unemployment insurance. However, as of the end of July the federal boost to unemployment insurance expired, likely resulting in more households feeling the impact of the loss in employment income.

As workers lose employment income and the impacts from the pandemic become an increasing financial strain on households, it translates to an inability to meet basic needs, such as housing or food. Housing insecurity is captured in the pulse survey, which represents the share of adults who live in a household that missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or who have slight or no confidence that their household can pay next month’s payment on time.
  During the pandemic, levels of housing insecurity have floated between 15 percent and 22 percent of adults who have either missed a housing payment or anticipate missing one. Unfortunately, there is no baseline estimate measuring housing insecurity before the pandemic. It is safe to assume it was some share above zero, but below the current levels that have averaged around 17 percent.

We do know that the share of mortgage loans in forbearance has increased dramatically compared with before the pandemic. According to the most recent results from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s Forbearance and Call Volume Survey, roughly 7.6 percent of loans across the nation were in forbearance as of July 26th, representing around 3.8 million homeowners. Before the pandemic only around 0.25 percent of loans were in forbearance.

As with housing insecurity, food scarcity is up. Food scarcity represents the number of adults in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days. There were an estimated 330,000 adults in Oregon who did not have enough food as of the week ending July 21st, roughly 10 percent of the population.  Oregon’s shares of food scarcity are slightly below the national average of around 12 percent. Once again, there is no direct baseline before the pandemic began, but according to results from the 2018 Current Population Survey around 6.8 percent of adults in Oregon were food insecure in 2018. It is safe to say that food scarcity is up for many individuals due to the pandemic. Much of this scarcity is likely driven by the loss of employment income. However, we are also seeing food scarcity inflated by supply chain and distribution issues that may be limiting access to food, as well as notable increases in costs for many standard grocery items. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, grocery prices increased 5.6 percent in June.

One of the more revealing questions asked of respondents in the weekly pulse survey was, do you expect to lose employment income in the next four weeks? For the last week of the survey (July 16-21st) it was estimated that roughly 37 percent of Oregon adults expected someone in their household to have a loss in employment income in the next four weeks. Responses for this particular question were highest during the first few weeks of the survey then gradually began to decline. However, over the past several weeks workers became more pessimistic, with the share of adults expecting a loss of employment income in the coming weeks up 8 percentage points from the end of June.

Is this pessimism related to businesses using up their Pay Check Protection (PPP) loans? The continued growth in COVID-19 cases? Or, the expiration of expanded UI benefits? It is impossible to know exactly, but it is revealing that Oregonians didn’t feel any more secure as of the end of July compared with the depths of the stay-at-home orders in late April and May.

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