For two years, the COVID-19 Survey of Consumers polled people across the U.S. on how they were faring amid massive shifts in our economy and in their daily lives. As part of sunsetting the COVID-19 survey, the Philadelphia Fed’s Consumer Finance Institute (CFI) has published a collection of data sets derived from the survey.
Now, CFI is working on a new survey that will provide ongoing data on consumer sentiment and well-being focusing beyond the effects of the pandemic. We talked to Tom Akana, CFI advisor and research fellow, to find out what CFI learned from the COVID-19 survey, the value of preserving previous data, and what we can expect going forward.
Q: When the pandemic started, you launched the COVID-19 Survey of Consumers rather quickly. What did you hope to learn? And how did it evolve over time?
TA: Our initial hope was that we could get early information on the segments of the population that were feeling the economic side effects of the pandemic the most and how large those effects were. We were planning to produce public-facing analyses that would provide a checkpoint for those who were interested in how consumers were faring during the pandemic, including policymakers and others who make decisions impacting consumers and the economy. We would also share that data with our internal policymakers and economists to provide real-time context to the aggregated data already available.
Like everyone else at the time we launched, we anticipated a few weeks — maybe a few months — of major changes. That turned into two years and 12 waves of the survey.
Besides gradually improving our survey design and question methodology, we began to see the survey as a tool that would allow very targeted data collection on timely topics. So, for instance, we had single-run or short-run modules on savings rates, checking account overdrafts, mortgage refinancing, the effects of the federal relief programs, debt payments, and education loans, among others.
These modules let us home in on specific economic topics that weren’t necessarily apparent early in the pandemic, but that became important at particular points in time as the pandemic evolved. This flexibility to ask modular questions revealed the value of higher-frequency survey work.
Q: The survey ran from April 2020 to April 2022. What were some of the biggest themes that emerged or main takeaways over the course of the survey from your perspective?
TA: One of the biggest things that became clear to me was that the effects of the pandemic were wide ranging, but they were unequal both in the speed of the negative effects and their magnitude. It’s generally understood that economic shocks are going to affect high-risk populations more — those with lower incomes, less housing and job stability, and minority populations. Our data reinforced that, while all income ranges, for instance, reported concerns about making ends meet, lower-earning groups showed those concerns sooner and at a higher level than more affluent respondents.
What also struck me was that faster declines in financial security were not countered by faster improvements. Groups that were hit the hardest and the fastest also tended to take longer to show meaningful returns to “normalcy.” We also gained interesting insights into which forms of assistance reached their targets more successfully (cash assistance and mortgage forbearance, for instance) and which ones were less successful (rental assistance, in particular).
Q: You’ve mentioned previously that you designed the survey to glean insights and uncover trends that were not available from other data sources. What are some examples?
TA: I think the best way to think about it is that most of the data we work with are aggregated and depersonalized. We can see things happening, but we can’t necessarily glean the reasons why they’re happening or get more information from the people they’re happening to. The survey helped us understand the specifics and, at times, ask for underlying reasons for decisions that people were making — decisions that eventually showed up in our larger data sets.
For instance, in mid-2020, when it first looked like things may begin to reopen, we added a question that asked people who reported having lost their jobs or were now working remotely how concerned they were about certain aspects of returning to work. For example, did they fear another shutdown, contracting COVID-19 at work, or struggling to find childcare? This helped us understand some of the roadblocks that employers and policymakers would potentially encounter as the economy began to restart.
Similarly, in late 2021, we began to collect data from education loan holders as we approached the end of the federal student loan payment freeze. We wanted to learn which portions of the population were likely to struggle as they began owing monthly loan payments again. While we were doing that, the restart of payments was delayed and proposals around loan forgiveness began to gain steam. Because of the flexibility and frequency of the survey, we adjusted quickly to changes in the environment and were able to get useful information directly from consumers who were affected.
Q: The pandemic was an unprecedented time. What is the value of preserving these survey results? Who can use this data collection and what do you hope they will take away from it?
TA: The data will provide a snapshot of consumers’ job stability and financial security at a variety of points throughout the first two years of the pandemic. This will allow future researchers to connect their own work to what was happening in real time at the consumer level.
The long-term effects of key events — things like federal policies, relief programs, and vaccine development — will be studied for years. The ability to see data on the immediate effect these had on consumers will provide important context.
Q: The survey series will continue as a quarterly survey of consumers that no longer focuses on pandemic-specific topics but shifts instead to collect general data about consumers’ financial situations. Why is it important to gather this information from consumers and how can this survey help us better understand our economy?
TA: While the pandemic is largely behind us, we see huge value in continuing to collect data on consumer finance issues, particularly at a relatively frequent tempo.
The quarterly surveys that we are launching in 2023 will build on the work that we did during the pandemic to provide our researchers with ongoing data relating to how consumers think and feel about their financial situation, the tools they’re using day to day, and how their habits are changing over time.Tom Akana
Advisor and Research Fellow, Consumer Finance Institute
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Additionally, we will provide opportunities to explore specific topics that arise as the economy or the consumer finance industry changes in the future. We hope that this will provide a valuable addition to the slate of survey data produced at the Philadelphia Fed and throughout the Federal Reserve System.