The Biggest Challenges People Faced During the Pandemic

We polled the nation in October 2020, December 2020, and March 2021 to illuminate how US communities have experienced COVID-19. We wanted to understand: 

  • What have been the biggest challenges during the pandemic?
  • What has caused people to seek help, and who still needs help? 
  • What will be the biggest challenges in the future?
  • Who are people turning to for help? 
  • What stopped people from getting help?

Read this page to learn what US residents said were their biggest challenges throughout the pandemic, or explore more poll results:
Biggest Challenges | Challenges that Caused People to Seek Help | Future Challenges | Barriers to Help | Where People Received Help

Severity of impact of challenges during COVID-19

We asked respondents how COVID-19 has changed their household’s situation, including their ability to access medicine, employment status, and housing condition. Participants were asked to rate either how much their situation worsened or improved as a result of the pandemic during these specific timeframes. 

The following question shows how US residents feel their household situation has changed across different aspects of their lives, for worse or for better, because of COVID-19. 

How much, if at all, has COVID or coronavirus changed you or your household’s situation in the following areas? Please select one option on each row.

Key Findings

  • Across all nine domains, the majority of respondents said that the impact of COVID-19 had a negative impact on their households
  • Respondents’ emotional or mental health suffered significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One in two respondents (50.0%) said their emotional or mental health situation worsened in October; 5% more said their state worsened in December 2020 (55.0%). Surprisingly, in March 2021, even with vaccines being distributed and a sense of normalcy beginning to return, 50.4% of respondents said their emotional or mental health situation worsened, showing some degree of recovery – but indicating major impacts on mental health one year into the pandemic. Furthermore, the proportion of respondents who said their emotional or mental health situation got much worse was greater in March 2021 (18.4%) than it was in October 2020 (14.9%). 
  • Across October 2020, December 2020, and March 2021, nearly one in three respondents said that their ability to get medicines or medical treatments got worse due to COVID-19. Another one in three respondents said ability to pay for food or other basic expenses got worse.
  • Between October and December, the number of people who said their employment situation got much worse rose 4.9%.
    • This large uptick may reflect the loss of steady income for more families, whether through the loss of employment, or the loss of guaranteed employment. 
  • The selection with the largest net change in “got a lot better” and “got a little better” from October to March was the use and reliance on technology, which may reflect that households fell into a working routine and were able to use technology effectively. 

Overall, these results show that the COVID-19 pandemic had a mostly negative impact on many aspects of US residents’ lives. However, some individuals did note their situations got better in some areas.  

Economic areas such as employment, the ability to purchase basic expenses, ability to get medicines or medical treatment and housing were the most frequently categorized as “got much worse” or “got a little worse.” If employment is hard to maintain, other economic categories that rely on a source of income also deteriorate. As household economic situations worsen, they add more and more stress to individuals, which can, among other factors, lead to worsening of emotional or mental health. As these nine categories are not independent of one another, as one worsens, it can be reflected in the others. It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative effect on many domains of most peoples’ lives, but it is evident from these results that economic concerns are a driving factor to these cascading consequences

Next, we asked: What was the one challenge with the most negative impact on wellbeing?

We asked respondents to select the one challenge (out of nine possible challenges) that negatively impacted them the most.

COVID-19 has created many overlapping challenges – this question highlights which challenges, of many, were most harmful to most respondents during this time.

Which ONE challenge has negatively affected you or your household the MOST? Please select the option that best applies.

Key Findings

  • In October, an overwhelming number of respondents (37%) said emotional and mental health was the one challenge with the greatest negative impact on their household. In December, this fell to 35%, and then increased to 39% in March. 
  • Employment situation was the second greatest challenge for US residents in both October and December (17% and 19%, respectively). In March, this was one of challenges that showed the biggest decrease from December (-3.2%).
  • Between October and December, ability to get medicines or medical treatments moved from third most selected challenge to fourth; it was replaced by ability to pay for food or other basic expenses. The latter (ability to pay for food/basic expenses) showed the biggest decrease in March compared to the other challenges (-3.7%).
  • The proportion of respondents who said ability to pay for medicines or medical treatments was their greatest challenge increased in March (+2.1) compared to both October and December.
  • The overall rank of caretaking responsibility, technology, childcare, and housing remained largely unchanged between October 2020, December 2020, and March 2021.

These results show the immense impact on psychological well-being during the pandemic in the last quarter of 2020 and how issues may have shifted during the first quarter of 2021. Increases in the number of respondents who said their greatest challenge was employment situation or ability to pay for basic expenses between October and December may reflect the ongoing (and in some areas, worsening) economic impact of COVID-19. From December to March, the proportion of respondents who said emotional or mental health or ability to pay for medicines were their greatest challenges increased. 

As for the slight decrease in the number of respondents who said their biggest challenge was their ability to get medicines or treatment between October and December, this shift may be attributed to providers loosening limitations on in-office services or appointments. Especially in early stages of the pandemic, providers shifted to telehealth services to expand access to care, limit disease exposure for staff and patients, and reduce the patient demand on facilities. However, a perception among some patients that telehealth services do not provide the same quality of care and/or the fact telehealth is more difficult to access for some individuals may have limited their ability to access medicines or treatments. 

It is also important to note that the proportion of respondents who said their biggest challenge was their ability to pay for basic expenses and employment situation rose in October and December. However, in March, the proportion of respondents who said one of these was their greatest challenge decreased, and it is possible that there may have been a positive economic change to create this kind of improvement. This could be attributed to national policy adjustments and/or the Presidential transition.

The challenges of caretaking, childcare, housing and technology remained very consistent in the number of respondents who said these were the most pressing issues, likely due to economic challenges weighing more heavily for most of the population. Additionally, policies such as the Federal Eviction Moratoriums in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic have limited the likelihood for housing situations to deteriorate between October and March, offering some relief to US residents through the pandemic. Finally, these polls began months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and many households have stabilized into a new routine by October, limiting the represented change in hardships. Had data been collected pre-pandemic, we would likely have seen more drastic changes in responses from month to month. 

Polling was completed with support of the Walmart Foundation for our project, Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color.