Concept art illustrating economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic

According to survey data, 59% of Hispanic households in Arizona reported job disruptions in the first four months of the pandemic, compared to 22% of non-Hispanic white households.

TUCSON -- One in three Arizona households experienced job disruptions in the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hispanic and low-income households were some of the hardest hit, according to recent survey data compiled by researchers in the University of Arizona Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

As part of the National Food Access and COVID Response Team's effort to understand the pandemic's impact on food access and security, researchers from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University surveyed more than 600 Arizona households about their experiences in the first few months of the pandemic.

In addition to questions related to food accessibility and food assistance program participation, survey respondents were asked to note job loss, reduction in hours or loss of income.

With support from a UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences COVID-19 research grant, the online survey was conducted between July 1 and Aug. 10. The results were compiled into a series of three briefs recently published on ASU's Food Policy and Environment Research Group website.

"We approached these briefs from the perspective of: What are people going to need to know right away?" said Ann Josephson, an assistant professor of applied econometrics in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who helped analyze the data. "What do decision-makers need to know, and where should they focus their efforts?"

Job Disruptions Hit Arizonans Hard

"The first four months of the pandemic was a really important timeframe for job disruptions in particular," Josephson said. "There were major job losses in that period."

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Arizona's unemployment rate increased from 6.5% in February 2020 to 13.5% by April 2020. Jobless rates have since declined both nationally and in the state of Arizona but remain higher than they were in February 2020.

"I was one of those people who found themselves unemployed in March," said Freddy Driesen, who was in his final semester as a UArizona undergraduate pursuing a degree in agribusiness and management when the pandemic hit.

After losing his job in the hospitality sector, Driesen was offered a role on the research project and assisted Josephson in extrapolating the data and writing computational coding that could be harnessed by researchers across the country.

"The semester ended, but thanks to this project, I was able to research the impact this was having across Arizona on people like me," Driesen said. "You hear that this virus affects everybody, but when you look a little deeper, you see those who could least afford it were the most impacted."

Over a third of Arizona households experienced some form of job disruption within the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hispanic and low-income households were disproportionately affected.

According to the survey data, 59% of Hispanic households reported job disruptions compared to 22% of non-Hispanic white households. Low-income households, already at a disadvantage, were among the hardest hit, with almost half of households making less than $25,000 in 2019 experiencing a job disruption during the pandemic.

Dramatic Increase in Arizona Households Facing Food Insecurity

About one in three Arizona households (32%) experienced food insecurity in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic – a 28% increase from the year prior to the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Researchers measured food insecurity in the state of Arizona using the USDA's six-item household food insecurity survey module. Those who responded affirmatively to two or more of the food insecurity questions were considered food insecure.

According to the data, food insecurity was considerably higher among households that experienced a job disruption (57%) than among households that did not experience any job disruption (19%).

Nearly three quarters of Hispanic households that experienced job disruption also faced food insecurity.

"Hispanic households lost more jobs and were worse off in terms of food security across the board," Josephson said. "Food insecurity was a major issue. It was particularly bad if you were in a position that was precarious to begin with. If you had children or elderly people in your household, there were real challenges there, too."

Food Assistance Program Participation Held Steady

Despite the dramatic increase in reported food insecurity since the onset of the pandemic, food assistance program participation saw little change.

In the year prior to the pandemic, 26% of Arizona households surveyed reported participating in at least one food assistance program, compared to the 27% who reported doing so since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

More than half of survey respondents considered the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits inadequate. And nearly half of Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children participants surveyed reported not being able to fully redeem their benefits in stores due to lack of availability of WIC-approved foods.

According to the survey results, some of the major challenges for using the school meal programs include limited hours, inconvenient locations and meals running out before the next pick-up day. Survey respondents who relied on food pantry benefits found long lines and limits on frequency of visits to pantries challenging.

Putting the Data to Work

The team hopes that the data will be of use to stakeholders around the state.

"We're trying to provide data to organizations that may not have the resources to do it," Josephson said. "That's something that we'll be able to learn as we redesign and go forward, particularly what information do organizations need to know about the people they're trying to help."

The research team is putting together a new round of the survey that will focus on household experiences in the time between the election and the New Year, a period when many supplemental unemployment benefits ended and COVID-19 cases in the state dramatically increased.

In the future, the team also hopes to learn more about other aspects of people's lives, including access to necessities such as prescription medication, medical services and secure living environments.

"If you lost your job, are you able to run the heat? If you're an elderly household having trouble accessing food, are you also having trouble accessing a secure and safe environment to live? We're talking about food, but if you're not able to access food, you might not be accessing basic life necessities," Josephson said.

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Rosemary Brandt is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. She can be contacted at rjbrandt@email.arizona.edu or 520-358-9729

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