Holes in the safety net? Experts on the pandemic’s impact on social services

U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank. (Courtesy of U.S. Rep. Josh Harder via Creative Commons)

The pandemic stretched the safety net. It put a spotlight on the critical social services provided by the government and community-based organizations, including those with religious missions. 

Unemployment rates spiked to historic levels as businesses shuttered to slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Food insecurity rates rose and vulnerable populations, including the elderly, struggled to cover basic expenses and stay socially connected as well as healthy.

Public and private entities stepped in to help. But early in the pandemic, a survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund showed that nonprofit leaders were worried about the long-term financial stability of their organizations.

About a year later, The Associated Press reports, “President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty.”

The latest edition of ReligionLink features experts who may be able to help you cover how the coronavirus outbreak continues to impact social services and the people they serve, with additional information on food insecurity and aging adults among the vulnerable.

Background information

Related resources

Potential sources

  • Mark A. Chaves

    Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.

  • Mike Kinman

    The Rev. Mike Kinman is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. The church launched Safe Haven Bridge to Housing amid the pandemic to provide a safe, temporary place to sleep.

  • Laurie Paarlberg

    Laurie Paarlberg is a professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

  • Susan Scheer

    Susan Scheer is the chief executive of the Institute for Career Development in Manhattan. Individuals with disabilities are among the clients the organization serves.

    Contact: 212-585-6000.
  • Bill Tibbitts

    Bill Tibbitts is the associate director and coalition of religious communities director of Crossroads Urban Center. The nonprofit, grassroots organization assists and organizes Utahans with low incomes, those with disabilities and people of color to meet basic needs and quality of life issues.

  • Diane Yentel

    Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Direct interview requests to the coalition’s media team.

Global pandemic causes food insecurity

Several religious traditions call on the faithful to feed the hungry, a need exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. A Feeding America report noted that food insecurity in the U.S. had been declining for years until the pandemic hit.

Feeding America, a nonprofit nationwide network of food banks, estimates that 45 million people could not access sufficient food in 2020 due to financial constraints. The report projects that number will improve slightly, but that 42 million people still could experience food insecurity this year, and it will take time for food insecurity levels to improve.

Feeding America also reports that it will take partnerships across government, the private sector and the charitable food system to turn food insecurity levels around and ultimately help address the country’s hunger problem.

Background information

Related resources

Potential sources

  • Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

    Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, food pantries and meal programs.

    Contact: 800-771-2303.
  • Eugene Cho

    The Rev. Eugene Cho is president and CEO of Bread for the World, a Christian organization that advocates for leaders to make policies that can end hunger. Contact Chris Ford for media inquiries.

  • Michel Desjardins

    Michel Desjardins researches the role food plays in people’s spiritual lives at Wilfrid Laurier University.

  • Luis Guardia

    Luis Guardia is the president of the Food Research & Action Center. Contact Jordan Baker with media inquiries.

  • Craig Gundersen

    Craig Gundersen studies the causes and consequences of food insecurity at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He also evaluates food assistance programs.

  • Zahid Hussain

    Zahid Hussain is the director of hunger prevention for ICNA Relief. The relief organization is part of the Islamic Circle of North America.

  • Donna Markham

    Sister Donna Markham is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. Contact Patricia Cole with media inquiries.

  • Katherine Marshall

    Katherine Marshall is executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and senior fellow and visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, leading the Program on Religion and Global Development. She is an expert on international development issues and advises the World Bank, where she once worked.

  • Urgen Sherpa

    Urgen Sherpa is the president of the United Sherpa Association. The organization launched a food program in April 2020 as the coronavirus spread throughout its New York City borough.

Aging adults among the vulnerable

The coronavirus hit the aging population hard. According to the CDC, older adults have an increased risk of being hospitalized or dying if they become sick from the COVID-19 virus. Long-term care facilities became hot spots early in the pandemic, and elderly people living at home also faced challenges.

With their normal operations upended, the pandemic forced organizations serving the aging population to pivot to try to slow the spread of the outbreak. A March report from the National Council on Aging states that they have risen to meet the needs of older adults, but many community-based organizations are struggling to continue to provide vital services during the pandemic.

A January survey by the National Council on Aging found the top needs of older adults to be staying socially connected, covering basic expenses, helping with transportation and technology needs as well as access to reliable information about the pandemic.

Background information

Related research

Potential sources

  • Ramsey Alwin

    Ramsey Alwin is the president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.

  • Clara Berridge

    Clara Berridge studies technology in elder care at the University of Washington. She was the lead author of the study “Caring for Washington’s older adults in the COVID-19 pandemic: Interviews with organization leaders about the state of social and healthcare services.”

  • Judy Halper

    Judy Halper is the board chair of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies and the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.

  • Ellie Hollander

    Ellie Hollander is the president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. Contact Jenny Young with media inquiries.

  • Harold G. Koenig

    Harold G. Koenig is the co-Director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. He studies the effects of religion and spirituality on health and authored “Ways of Protecting Religious Older Adults from the Consequences of COVID-19.”

  • Sandy Markwood

    Sandy Markwood is the CEO of National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. For media inquiries, contact Joellen Leavelle.

  • Sondra Norder

    Sondra Norder is president and CEO of St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, and the vice chair of public policy for LeadingAge Wisconsin.

  • Dave Worland

    Dave Worland is the executive director of the Tennessee Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office helped launch a help line to serve lonely adults in the state. Contact Eli L. Berry with media inquiries.