Barriers and Opportunities in the U.S. during a Global Pandemic

March 09, 2021
Federal Reserve System Report COVID-19's Impact on Communities

Perspectives from Main Street
Survey results provide insight into how COVID-19 is affecting the economic resiliency of low- to moderate-income communities nationwide.

The Federal Reserve banks and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System implemented a national survey of community organizations to gain an understanding of the impact of the pandemic on low- to moderate-income (LMI) communities.

The survey, which was conducted several times throughout 2020, provides a snapshot in time and documents a significant disruption and a difficult recovery for many LMI communities and the entities that serve them. The findings from each round of the survey are available on the Fed Communities website.

The latest iteration of the survey, fielded Oct. 7-16, 2020, asked respondents to discuss in open-ended responses any programs at the local, state and federal levels that presented notable opportunities and barriers for the communities they served. There were 360 responses about opportunities and 154 on barriers for the local level, with responses in the 200s for both on the state and federal levels. 

This blog post presents main themes based on those responses: COVID-19-related relief efforts were significant, but funding access and program capacity were challenges, survey respondents said.

“At this point in time, are there any programs or initiatives that have presented notable opportunities AND/OR barriers for low- and moderate-income communities you serve?”

—Perspectives from Main Street: October 2020 survey question

Local Level: Respondents Noted Funding Availability and High Need

One of the most significant opportunities at the local level was the availability of funding for small-business support, basic needs and health care. Funding was made available using different approaches.

  • One example cited was a fund the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe set up whereby people diagnosed with COVID-19 received gift cards to make social distancing feasible.
  • Efforts to improve housing security, such as local programs aimed at providing rent, mortgage and utility assistance, were prominent in the responses.
  • Similarly, people pointed out that programs focused on eviction prevention—increasing access to attorneys and legal clinics, as well as offering moratoriums on utility shutoffs and delayed tax payments—were significant.
  • With food insecurity a persistent issue,See “Hungry at Thanksgiving: A Fall 2020 Update on Food Insecurity in the U.S.” on The Hamilton Project blog. many respondents mentioned the efforts by local food banks and food pantries. Some of these programs were especially geared toward providing food for out-of-school children, the elderly, people with disabilities and veterans. Many of the programs were modified to include options for delivery.

Although the availability of local funding was positive, several noted the lack of resources to meet the high levels of need. One respondent noted, “Small business assistance grant applications exponentially exceed the grant resources available,” while another mentioned that programs have been overwhelmed.

The issue was exacerbated as many faced challenges when applying for benefits, including accessing federal funding. Cumbersome paperwork, slow processing times and lack of digital access were some common challenges. The capacity of local agencies added to the frustration.

One person noted that funding from the coronavirus relief CARES Act overseen by the Small Business Administration was helpful, but that local agencies didn’t have the capacity to effectively use those resources. “The local agency only has a small number of case managers to conduct intake and distribute funds. There's a huge bottleneck,” the person said.

State Level: Small Business and Housing Support Were Cited as Positive; Challenges Include Cumbersome Processes

When asked about state-level programs, respondents most often cited support for small businesses and support for affordable housing as the most effective opportunities to assist LMI communities. Some respondents also commented on opportunities for states to support LMI communities through supplemental unemployment insurance, food distribution programs and child care.

Responses about opportunities to support affordable housing referred to rental housing assistance, including utility and eviction moratoriums. Some respondents advocated for state-level mortgage assistance, while a few respondents focused on homelessness prevention programs. (There are also innovative efforts, such as California’s Project Roomkey, that provide hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among already vulnerable populations.)

One respondent summarized the housing crisis: “Rent moratoriums at the state and city level have been important and must go deep to fuel rent forgiveness. Folks are paying what they can, desperately trying to keep a roof over their heads, and many are joining the ranks of the homeless despite moratoriums.”

Two old brick multi-family homes

The St. Louis Fed District and COVID-19’s Toll
An analysis reveals both consistencies and contrasts with national survey results.

While many noted the impact of state funding for housing and small businesses, time frames and limited resources were a concern. Respondents stated that many programs had too many restrictions on funding programs and not enough money to help the vast number of people. And others expressed concern about their states not having a solid plan for disbursement of CARES Act funding.

Many respondents expressed frustration with the waits for unemployment insurance benefits, with one respondent noting that the benefits “are woefully behind in reaching claimants.” Finally, respondents noted barriers posed by a lack of consistency in measures to curb the health risks posed by COVID-19. One respondent commented that there weren’t smooth transitions between closures and re-openings and there didn’t seem to be a government awareness of the impact requirements had on organizations. There was “an overall lack of uniform and clear protocols…” the respondent said.

Federal Level: Respondents Say Funds Are Helpful but Access Unequal

Regarding the federal response, one respondent noted: “On one hand, PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] and Community Advantage programs have been made available. On the other hand, there was not equal access to these programs by people of color [and] women. Additionally, immigrant residents of our region were left out of the Stimulus Check program—huge barrier. We are increasingly concerned about a wave of evictions.”

Most of the responses mentioned that the CARES Act (in general or a particular part of it) and PPP loans have been opportunities at the federal level. Additionally, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks both seemed to have positive impacts. Nevertheless, many respondents were concerned about expired or expiring funds. Several respondents claimed funds, although useful, were not enough, and many mentioned that there was often a delay in payments.

As this section’s opening quote highlights, unequal access to funds by groups was also a main concern. Respondents said small businesses could not access funds because of complex rules and application processes, a lack of clear information or lack of relationships with sponsoring banks, or because they did not meet the necessary requirements. On the individual side, people had issues accessing unemployment benefits and receiving stimulus checks, for example, due to immigration status.

A considerable number of responses expressed concern about evictions, lack of housing for the homeless and housing security in general. In particular, many housing-related responses highlighted the lack of long-term rental and mortgage relief programs at the federal level, which, according to respondents, results in only postponing evictions.

One respondent noted: “[It] is imperative to ensure that low-income renters can remain stably housed for the long term, and that the eviction moratorium does not simply postpone evictions.” Finally, several respondents said there was a lack of coordination and leadership in the response to the health and economic crises.

All Three Levels: Significant Relief Efforts Were Paired with Challenges, Respondents Say

At all three levels, people acknowledged the significance of COVID-19-related relief efforts. However, challenges related to accessing funding and capacity for program implementation created barriers for LMI communities and the organizations serving them. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant disruptions, especially to LMI communities. For recovery, it is important that future relief efforts aim to ensure they are responsive and inclusive of communities that have been most impacted.


1 See “Hungry at Thanksgiving: A Fall 2020 Update on Food Insecurity in the U.S.” on The Hamilton Project blog.
About the Authors
Nishesh Chalise
Nishesh Chalise

Nishesh Chalise is the director of Community-Based Policy and Analysis within the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed.

Nishesh Chalise
Nishesh Chalise

Nishesh Chalise is the director of Community-Based Policy and Analysis within the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed.

Violeta Gutkowski

Violeta Gutkowski is a lead analyst within the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed.

Violeta Gutkowski

Violeta Gutkowski is a lead analyst within the Institute for Economic Equity at the St. Louis Fed.

Heidi Kaplan
Heidi Kaplan

Heidi Kaplan is a senior community affairs analyst with the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors.

Heidi Kaplan
Heidi Kaplan

Heidi Kaplan is a senior community affairs analyst with the Federal Reserve System Board of Governors.

This blog explains everyday economics, explores consumer topics and answers Fed FAQs. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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