How have policies and programs helped families stay economically stable during the COVID-19 pandemic?
That is the overarching question framing three ongoing research studies by Vincent Fusaro, an assistant professor in the Boston College School of Social Work whose scholarship focuses on the policies and programs that affect the well-being of low-income households in the United States.
Here, Fusaro delves into the particulars of his new research and shares a few little-known facts about his life outside of BC.
Can you tell us a little bit about the research you are currently working on?
In the initial months of the pandemic in 2020, many people from across the ideological spectrum expected widespread problems in households meeting basic needs and anticipated an epidemic of food insecurity and a nationwide tsunami of evictions. Those fears were well founded: the unemployment rate was at a record high in April and food pantries saw unprecedented demand; add in the closure of schools, and the ingredients for widespread hardship were in place. Although that period was stressful and plenty of families experienced challenges, the feared hardship crisis did not materialize, and families were less at risk during the pandemic years. Right now, I’m focused on understanding how policy helped families stay economically stable during the pandemic.
I am working with Rebekah Levine Coley and Naoka Carey in the Lynch School to estimate the impact of the eviction moratoria during the pandemic. In particular: were communities of color and communities with high rates of poverty well protected by the moratoria? Or did they remain at elevated risk of eviction even with protections in place?
Another study I am collaborating on with BCSSW doctoral student Leila Dal Santo and UCLA faculty member Margaret Thomas looks at the relationship between SNAP (“food stamps”) participation, hardships like food insufficiency, and mental health in households with children during the pandemic. The goal is to understand how we can apply lessons learned during the pandemic to develop more effective policies and practices during “normal” times.
Finally, I am working with a colleague at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to investigate lingering racial and ethnic disparities in the impact of the pandemic on household well-being.
Are there any state or federal policies you think the public should be paying more attention to?
The biggest one is the expanded Child Tax Credit program from the pandemic, which was built off an existing tax credit program and provided most families with several hundred dollars for a few months in 2021. This type of program gives families the flexibility to decide how best to use the resources for their children, whether it is meeting basic needs, offsetting child care expenses, or for enrichment activities. It also provides an automatic safety net, which is critical for families at the lower end of the economic distribution, as they often experience large swings in earnings. Another strength that does not get discussed nearly enough in the United States is that this type of program recognizes that care work, such as raising children, is work. Finally, it’s administratively simple, relying on an existing agency to implement and the rules are straightforward.
The emerging evidence indicates that this was an overall successful initiative; the child poverty rate fell by half, there was a decline in food hardship, and we saw little impact on employment. These findings mirror the experiences of other nations with child allowance programs. Basically, what the pandemic era showed us is that child poverty and family hardship are solvable problems. Rather than thinking of 2021 as an unusual year full of temporary programs, we should look at the most successful elements of the policy package as prototypes for more permanent solutions to historically vexing issues.
What new or emerging research has you excited at the moment?
I am most interested in the research that is coming out about the pandemic-era programs. Where we once expected a catastrophe for households with children, we instead saw families actually doing better than prior to the pandemic on some measures. There are a wave of studies coming out now about the lessons we can take from that. The pandemic also offered some new sources of data that provide researchers with a granularity we have rarely had. For example, the Census Bureau fielded a survey called Pulse routinely throughout the pandemic to monitor how U.S. households were doing; this survey gave us data on employment and food hardship on a finer time scale than we usually get—around every week, instead of once a year. It will be interesting to see how researchers leverage this data, especially as we transition out of the public health emergency but with rapid increases in prices for necessities.
What is something that people who know you would be surprised to learn about you?
I love outdoor activities like hiking and fishing, and I play guitar and a little bass. Maybe the thing people would find surprising, though, is I really enjoy fixing things, whether it is doing my own auto repair or working on my house. I get a real sense of accomplishment from figuring out why something is not working the way it should and fixing it.