Report Examines Pandemic Effects on Middle Class

Tiffany Ford headshot.

SPH alumna Tiffany Ford, MPH in Community Health Sciences ’16, research analyst with the Brookings Institution’s Future of the Middle Class Initiative, co-authored a new report on “What [If] Something Happens? A qualitative study of the American middle class before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The report highlights the results of focus groups and interviews with people from across the United States, beginning in 2019 before the pandemic and continuing as the U.S. dealt with the spread of the virus.  The authors note respondents felt they were already “teetering on the edge” before the onset of the pandemic, making difficult tradeoffs or navigating injustices and racism.  Key findings include:

  • Middle-class Americans in fall 2019 felt economically insecure. By April 2020, some participants had been laid off from their jobs and were struggling to pay for groceries or their phone bill. For others, COVID-19 provided a brief respite from rising rents or student debt repayments.
  • Longing for control over one’s time dominated the life stories of almost everyone interviewed. While the reality of the pandemic has put working families in a vulnerable position, researchers heard a counterintuitive narrative from some participants. The stay-at-home orders provided a break from the frantic pace and impossible demands of their normal lives, lending a bit of control over their time.
  • In both focus groups and interviews, researchers heard stories of persistent racial discrimination from Black and Hispanic or Latino individuals and of racial resentment from some whites.
  • From younger people, the study showed the pandemic has put their lives on hold – as they are living with their parents and unable to move forward in the ways they had hoped or expected at this point in their lives.

Taken together, these stories of middle-class Americans paint a picture of struggle and triumph, difficulty and resilience, and anxiety and hope. Through these stories, we see the pressures and vulnerabilities of the middle class before and during the pandemic and are better able to understand the sheer unworkability of middle-class schedules, the extent of their constricting budgets, even in more “normal” times, as well as the discrimination and barriers that Black and Hispanic or Latino middle-class Americans face on a daily basis.