What Challenges Caused People to Seek Help during COVID-19?

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 caused them to seek help during the pandemic, and what help is still needed, or explore more poll results:
Biggest Challenges | Challenges that Caused People to Seek Help | Future Challenges | Barriers to Help | Where People Received Help


Challenges that caused people to look for help

In our national poll, we asked respondents to identify the challenges for which they have sought assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to discern the impacts of COVID-19 that were drastic enough to require respondents to seek assistance in addressing them, and how that trend changed over time.  

Which, if any, of the following challenges have you or your household tried to get help with because of COVID or coronavirus? Please select all that apply.

Key Findings

  • Across all challenges we asked about, the number of people who tried to get help increased between October and December 2020.
  • Caretaking responsibility and childcare were the only challenges that continued to increase (+1.2% and +1.2%, respectively) in March 2021 while the other challenges decreased.  
  • In October, emotional or mental health was the greatest challenge for which respondents sought to get help (18%). This increased in December, at which point one of every five respondents said they tried to get help with their emotional or mental health (20%).
  • The greatest increase was in those who tried to get help for employment (+5.9% between October and December). 
  • Those who tried to get help for their ability to pay for basic expenses also increased (+5.3%); nearly one in five (19%) respondents tried to get help with this issue in December (compared to 14% in October). 
  • In March, the number of respondents who tried to get help with employment (-7.5%) and ability to pay for food (-7.6%) considerably decreased. 
  • The positions of caretaking responsibility, technology, childcare, and housing showed a significant increase from October to December, despite the fact that these areas had an initial small number of responses. 

These results are likely reflective of the massive increase in COVID-19 cases between October and December 2020 as well as the compounding impacts of unresolved challenges that stretch back to the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020. The respondents who sought help for employment in December exceeded the number who sought help for emotional or mental health that month. The shift shows that the need for employment became more important during the last quarter of the year and that more people may have had difficulty with their finances. 

It is important to note that many of these challenges are closely related. Increases in economic-related problems (employment, paying for food and medicines, and housing) are likely furthering emotional health issues. 

As the pandemic progressed into 2021, we found that people no longer sought as much assistance with employment or ability to pay for basic expenses. In fact, by March 2021, the employment situation for many respondents had improved, which may also be related to decrease in those seeking help with the ability to for basic expenses. We found that the needs of US residents shifted to focus more on seeking assistance with caretaking responsibilities and childcare. With more people being able to re-enter the workforce, the ability to provide care for family members appears to have become more difficult to sustain. 

Among all of the answer options we provided, the most drastic change in sentiment was seen between the choice of employment or ability to pay for basic expenses. Respondents’ answers may reflect that social safety nets had potentially reached their breaking point between October and December 2020, leading in a surge of US residents to seek help between those three months last year. Additionally, savings and other economic buffers may have been further drained with the economic impact of the holiday season. However, by March 2021, these same factors seem to have settled to the point where US residents are slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy


We asked: Where do you still need help?

After we asked respondents which challenges caused them to seek help, we asked them what challenges remain. When compared to the question above, this question can also help show where help sought might not have been sufficient to alleviate a given challenge. 

Which, if any, of the following challenge(s) do you still need help with now? Please select all that apply.

Key Findings

  • In October and December of 2020, the proportion of people that needed help was equal to or exceeded the number of people that tried to get help. In March 2021, this was true for all but one challenge, childcare and/or child education.  
  • The number of people who said they needed help for their employment situation and ability to pay for basic expenses increased greatly from October to December 2020 (+4.2% and +6.3%, respectively) and then decreased greatly from December 2020 to March 2021 (-5.8% and -8.0%, respectively). 
  • The ability to pay for medicines or treatments and ability to get medicines or medical treatments were the only challenges that decreased consistently from the beginning to the end of the polling window (October to December 2020 to March 2021). Even though a relatively small proportion of people said these were outstanding challenges in March compared to other challenges like mental health, the results show that one in 10 US residents were struggling with ability to pay for and/or get medicines or medical treatments one year into the pandemic.
  • Between October and December 2020, the percent of people who said they don’t currently need help with a listed challenge help decreased from 38% to 32% – which likely indicates more people are reaching the limit with these challenges to which they require assistance. 

In previous questions, we found that emotional or mental health was one of the biggest challenges US residents experienced during the pandemic, so it is unsurprising that this is an issue for which many US residents need assistance. The substantial and increasing number of people who said they still need help with emotional or mental health suggests this need is not being met and continues to be a prevalent worry to respondents.

For all but two challenges, the number of respondents who indicated they still needed help increased between October and December 2020. These results suggest a number of potential challenges: it is possible that help was ineffective or not sufficient to resolve a challenge between October and December, that help may have been sought for a challenge but not received, or that a challenge was resolved earlier but has resurfaced. 

The number of respondents that said they still needed help with their ability to get medicines or treatments and ability to pay for medicines or treatments both decreased slightly from October 2020 to March 2021. During this period, the focus of the population may have started to put more attention on immediate household needs where resources were not so readily available. It is also possible that information on health services and medication resources became more accessible. As employment situation improves from December 2020 to March 2021, so does ability to pay for basic expenses. However, even with the improvement of employment situation in March 2021, that emotional or mental health remains an area that is in need.

It is interesting to contrast these responses as compared to the previous graph: what challenges have you tried to get assistance with in the past 6 months. Compared to responses to that question, many more respondents answered that they still require help in these areas than those which looked for help previously. If assistance is necessary, the question arises – why are people not seeking the help they require? A possible cause of this concern is related to the confidence in the services offered. Another potential cause is the stigma associated with seeking help, particularly for problems like emotional and mental health. For example, interviews and other qualitative data suggests that many groups stigmatize mental health issues, which deters people from seeking help.

Results from another question we asked in this poll – what barriers prevented you from getting help during the pandemic? – suggest that fear of getting sick, lack of clear information on where and how to receive assistance, fear of mistreatment by those that would provide help, or fear of being judged by one’s community for seeking help serve as deterrents as well. Read more about those results here.


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