COVID Community Data Lab

Indicators for an Inclusive Recovery

    
    
UMDI Logo Visit Site
Center for Housing Data Visit Site

In May, we launched this Data Lab, analyzing the best available data on how our communities have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. We hope that this research will be used to help shape an inclusive recovery, because thus far, rather than being an equalizer, the dynamics of this crisis have served to exacerbate underlying racial and economic inequality.

When we first launched, much of the data showed remarkable levels of inactivity, both physical and economic. Transit ridership and road traffic had dropped as much as 95 percent, and weekly job losses regularly broke historic records. While we are far from anything resembling “normal,” late April and early May now appear to have been a low point for many measures. People are now traveling away from home a bit more, and some laid-off workers have been rehired. But will we continue on this trajectory, or might a second wave of infections force a reversal? And even if measures continue improving, how long will it take for us to rebuild (or build something anew)? These are some of the questions that we’ll continue tracking through this ongoing research project.

We’ve been updating data weekly, so please come back regularly for the latest analysis across all domains. For now, here are some key findings from our most recent updates and expansions:

  • We’re beginning to analyze results from a brand-new weekly Census Bureau survey measuring household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic called the Household Pulse Survey. Here, we analyze economic anxiety around possible future loss of income, finding that while there was a general decline in early May, anxiety is rising again in Massachusetts, especially among Black and Latino households. In the coming weeks we hope to add data from this survey on things like food insecurity and housing stability.
  • While we had one of the strongest state economies before the COVID crisis hit, the Massachusetts unemployment rate has been higher than the nationwide rate for the last two months. Also, after declining for several weeks straight, weekly unemployment claims in Massachusetts ticked up again in the first week of June before declining once more - suggesting that MA's economy has not quite stabilized.
  • Nationally, the unemployment rate declined a bit in May, suggesting that the national economic collapse may have bottomed out. Despite the overall drop, Black and Asian unemployment actually increased in May. Also, the small aggregate improvement for May only very partially offsets the major losses from March and April. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it might take a decade to recover fully.
  • After declining by more than 90 percent in some cases, public transit ridership and road traffic have increased from their April lows, with road traffic up a bit more. Blue Line ridership has declined less than any other subway line during the pandemic, likely due in part to the high number of frontline workers living in East Boston and Revere who are dependent on the line.
  • The state’s temporary eviction moratorium has helped mitigate immediate housing pain during the first few months of the crisis. But housing experts are increasingly concerned about what will happen to many low- and moderate-income households if the moratorium is not renewed later this summer.
  • New listings of homes for sale bounced back in May, but remain below the spring norm. After a slight drop, median prices of homes listed for sale ticked up again in May. Median rents haven’t declined markedly during the crisis, and they remain high.

Boston Indicators is leading this research project in partnership with the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and with contributions from the Economic and Public Policy Research team at the UMass Donahue Institute This is an ongoing project that we’ve been updating weekly. We’re also periodically adding new lines of analysis. If you are interested in getting involved as the project evolves and grows, please reach out.

For analyses across the Data Lab's six domains, please jump to specific topics linked below:

For a summary of key findings from our initial launch on May 13, 2020 click here.

Equity Analysis of COVID-19

Spread by City/Town

(Updated 7/6/2020)

The data analysis in this section is being led by the Economic and Public Policy Research team at the UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI) and is being written in partnership with Boston Indicators. UMDI has additional data available online at the Donahue Data Dash, including population share that’s 65+ and per capita income.

COVID-19 has hit hardest many populations and communities that were already among our state’s most vulnerable. For physical health reasons, the virus has been most deadly for people with preexisting conditions, which has largely meant that the elderly are at especially high risk. But Massachusetts cities and towns with more crowding in homes, larger communities of color and larger low-income communities have also seen higher COVID case rates (places like Chelsea, Lynn and Everett). These socioeconomic factors shouldn’t make people more likely to catch a virus, but through a range of “social determinants of health,” physical health intersects with the broader social context in which people live. Many of these lower-income communities of color, for instance, have higher shares of frontline workers (e.g., nurses and grocery store clerks) who risk infection every day by going to jobs providing essential services. These workers often only have access to lower-quality health care, and some have no health insurance at all. Many of these cities are also “environmental justice” communities that for years have suffered from worse air quality, which appears to lead those who do get infected to experience more severe symptoms.

The table below summarizes COVID cases for the 100 largest Massachusetts cities and towns and shows this side-by-side with some select socioeconomic data. Click on column headers to sort.

COVID case rates by municipality can be skewed a bit by the location of large group quarters, especially assisted living facilities, which have been centers of many of our state’s largest outbreaks. At the height of the pandemic in Massachusetts, Holyoke, for instance, had the 14th-highest COVID case rate statewide, but this high ranking was in part because the Holyoke Soldier’s Home for elderly veterans is located there. The Holyoke Soldier’s Home had the highest number of COVID-related deaths of any long-term care facility in the country. If you subtract positive cases from just that one facility, Holyoke would have still ranked high, but would shift down somewhat. If you subtract just the resident cases, Holyoke would fall to 18th and if you also subtract employee cases, Holyoke would’ve declined to 28th.

It’s important to note that information in this section relies on provisional data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). There are large gaps in what’s been released, although the quality of data is improving. This analysis focuses on positive COVID-19 tests, which is far from a perfect measure. Recorded cases rely on tests administered. While testing has been limited everywhere, it also has varied widely across communities. While there’s no doubt Chelsea has a large outbreak of COVID-19, part of why its positive test rate so far outpaces every other city is that Mass General Hospital ramped up testing in Chelsea early and operates a clinic there, offering tests to all Chelsea residents who are symptomatic regardless of patient status, health insurance, or immigration status.

Next we look at the relationship between people who have tested positive and other socioeconomic variables through a series of scatterplots. There are high levels of correlation between each of these individual socioeconomic variables and higher COVID case rates. This can make it seem as if each variable on its own leads to higher COVID rates, when this may not actually be the case. Taken together it does appear that these socioeconomic variables help explain significant COVID variation across different types of cities and towns, but it is difficult to determine how much of the impact is driven by each individual factor.

First we look at the share of households in a given community who live in crowded homes. Researchers use different definitions of “crowding” in different contexts. For this project we look at the number of housing units with more than 1.0 occupants per room (including bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms), and we find a very strong correlation with higher COVID case rates (an R value of 0.76).

For a virus that is spread primarily through close physical proximity, it makes sense that we’d see worse outbreaks in more densely populated cities, and this dynamic has been a topic of news coverage as the virus has spread. But the connection between overall population density (residents per acre) and positive case rates is actually not as strong as one might expect. While New York City has had a large outbreak other dense U.S. cities have not yet had episodes nearly as bad. Many Asian cities, some with population density even higher than New York’s, have not experienced the worst outbreaks either.

Multiple people crowding into a given housing unit, on the other hand, is a more precise measure of people living in close proximity to other people, and this measure has the strongest association with higher COVID case rates of any variable we tested. Chelsea, which has the highest COVID case rate also has by far the largest share of residents living in crowded homes, at just under 10 percent of occupied housing units in the city.

Somerville and Cambridge demonstrate the importance of making a distinction between population density and residential overcrowding. They rank first and second respectively among the 100 largest cities and towns in Massachusetts for overall population density, but they shift down to 30th and 27th when using the residential crowding measure. In terms of COVID case rates, neither of them is among the top half of communities, ranking 49th (Somerville) and 82nd (Cambridge).

Our findings here are consistent with a similar analysis conducted by New York University’s Furman Center, which looked across neighborhoods within New York City, finding that “COVID-19 is more prevalent in areas where more people reside in crowded units.”

Next we look at the share of a given community that is composed of people of color, which also shows a strong relationship with higher positive case rates (an R value of 0.72). This correlation is particularly strong for communities with large Latino populations (like Chelsea) and Black populations (like Brockton).

There’s also a strong relationship between positive COVID case rates and poverty, although it’s a bit less strong than the relationship with race. Poverty rates by community are available in the table above.

Finally, below we show the share of a community’s workforce made up of frontline essential workers. These employees risk infection everyday going to work as nurses, doctors, grocery clerks and transit drivers. There’s significant overlap between these two categories because a disproportionate share of people working in frontline service jobs are people of color. The correlation between frontline workers and COVID case rates is also quite strong, although a bit less strong than the correlation with people of color.

There’s also a strong relationship between positive COVID case rates and poverty, although it’s a bit less strong than the relationship with race. Poverty rates by community are available in the table above.

Housing

(Updated 7/6/2020)

This Housing section is being led and authored by the Center for Housing Data at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. For a review and analysis of the data and policies that will impact housing stability in coming months, check out the "Housing Stability: COVID-19 and Beyond" research brief released in late June for the Greater Boston Housing Report Card.

Rent and mortgage payment collections

Why we're tracking it:

Since the first reported cases in the Commonwealth in early March, COVID-19 has caused major disruptions in all aspects of the housing sector. Across Massachusetts construction has slowed to a trickle, eviction and foreclosure moratoria have been enacted, and hundreds of thousands of people are worrying about how to afford rent or mortgage payments in the months ahead. Confusion abounds around how much federal and state support households have access to or might eventually get, what forbearance and repayment terms might look like from landlords and lenders, and who will be stuck with the tab when all this is over.

The enactment of eviction and foreclosure moratoria will help to keep struggling households in their homes, but there has been a widespread disruption in the ability to pay for housing without additional supports. As households attempt to balance rent and mortgage payments with food costs and other basic necessities, two questions dominate: 1) How will people manage missed or partial payments? 2) Will households be expected to repay those amounts as soon as the moratoria end?

Note: The housing data in this project is supporting the development of a reimagined "2020 Greater Boston Housing Report Card," launched in June 2020.

The change we're seeing:

According to a rent payment tracker from the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC), by the end of April and May most renters were able to make at least a partial payment on their rent. Rent collections for the first three weeks of June show a continuation of this stability, with roughly 92 percent of renters already having made at least part of their June rent payment, consistent with prior months. It is likely that unemployment assistance, federal stimulus and other supports have mitigated much of the anticipated decline in rent collections for these first months of the crisis. It remains to be seen how rent collections might be impacted if these emergency measures are reduced or discontinued.

Additional survey data from Apartment List provides a cross-section of the first week of June payments for different types of households. Similar to the NMHC data shown above, this survey found roughly 20 percent of renters were unable to make any payment at all so far this month (versus 19 percent for NMHC). Furthermore, the Apartment List survey found that inability to pay housing costs among homeowners was very similar to that of renters. As the month progresses these collection rates are likely to increase. Additionally, lower-income households are more likely to have made a partial or no payment.

 

In April, an earlier version of the Apartment List survey showed that most households could cover only one or two months of housing costs if they were to lose their job (72 percent of renters and 54 percent of homeowners). Only 28 percent of renters and 46 percent of homeowners in the survey said they could cover three or more months of housing payments. This indicates that as the pandemic and its associated economic impacts extend, we will likely see higher rates of partial and non-payment. It also indicates that many households do not have emergency savings. The likelihood that most families could repay past due rent and mortgage payments may be relatively low without the continuation of sufficient financial support.

 

Evictions and foreclosures

Why we're tracking it:

The enactment of an eviction moratorium on April 21 is helping to keep people in their homes if they are struggling to make rent or mortgage payments. The moratorium includes protection for households already at risk of being evicted prior to the pandemic. However, the moratorium is only in effect until August 18, or 45 days after the end of the state emergency (whichever comes first). For more details on the intricacies of this law, visit the Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) COVID-19 website or the Massachusetts Legal Help website. Additional legislation or policy interventions will likely be needed to prevent a surge in evictions and foreclosures after legislative interventions phase out.

The change we're seeing:

New eviction filings have decreased dramatically since the start of the crisis, from about 750 new cases in the first week of February to just a handful of new cases in the first week of May. The decline in new cases dropped significantly starting in the week ending March 20, and following the enactment of the eviction moratorium on April 21 virtually no new evictions have been filed. While some cases opened in earlier months remain active, the number of cases being suspended due to COVID-19 continues to accrue. Future trends will depend heavily on the continuation of eviction protections as well as financial support for tenants who may be facing months of past due rent payments once the moratorium ends. If policy makers fail to plan for this, it is likely that we will see a surge in evictions for non-payment once these protections expire. For more discussion of the dynamics of this potential crisis, read the Globe’s coverage here.

 

On the ownership front, no new foreclosure petitions have been filed since the enactment of the foreclosure moratorium. In addition to protections ensured by the foreclosure moratorium, owner-occupants in 1-4 family residential properties in Massachusetts who are experiencing hardship as a result of the coronavirus have a right to forbearance for a period of up to six months with a possible extension for an additional six months. Both the duration and repayment terms of forbearance agreements vary, though, so it is difficult to determine in an aggregated way how long most homeowners will benefit from this temporary payment relief. While forbearance has undoubtedly helped some households in the short term, it is unknown how prevalent these agreements are, and whether homeowners subject to repayment obligations will be able to honor those commitments in the face of ongoing economic uncertainty and high levels of unemployment. The impending end of the foreclosure moratorium (both federal and state) may provide a first look at how effective these forbearance agreements are in ensuring housing stability and staving off foreclosure.

For more details on the right to forbearance, the Massachusetts Division of Banks has released a comprehensive FAQ. MassLegalHelp also has a helpful FAQ for both renters and landlords regarding the eviction and foreclosure moratorium as well as the right to forbearance.

Prices and transactions

Why we're tracking it:

The pandemic and economic crisis hit the United States right as the housing market was entering its busiest season. While there have been some dramatic month to month changes already, it is not yet clear if the suspension of construction activity will further exacerbate the metro Boston region’s housing supply gap, or if home sale prices will decline in the long run. Even potential homebuyers and renters who have the resources to move might delay or forgo entering the housing market due to the degree of uncertainty in their future economic outlook.

The change we're seeing:

There have been significant swings in the for-sale market from month to month. Both listing prices and market activity declined in April, only to climb upward in May and again in June. Relatedly, after an initial drop in April, June median listing price surged to new highs for both Boston MSA and Massachusetts.

Market activity, measured in new home listings, has not yet returned to pre-crisis levels, but consecutive months of increasing number of listings in May and June suggests that the housing market has begun to pick up significantly.

Meanwhile, the average duration of home listings, which rose sharply in April and May, has returned to the norm of previous years. This could be an indication that despite widespread economic uncertainty and high unemployment, demand in the home buying market remains relatively robust.

In the rental market, there has been a slight decline in median rent since the crisis began, with small drops in both May and June. Still, there has not yet been a major shift in rent prices in the Boston metro area or statewide. As the summer progresses, area colleges and universities will make more concrete decisions about fall classes and student housing. These decisions might have an impact on the rental markets in some neighborhoods that tend to house large student populations.

Economic
Impacts

(Updated 7/6/2020)

Key Takeaways:

  • While Massachusetts had one of the strongest regional economies in the country before the COVID crisis, unemployment has now been higher in Massachusetts than the U.S. average for the past two months - and likely for June as well.
  • While there was a general decline in early May for self-reported economic anxiety around the possible future loss of income, this anxiety is rising again in Massachusetts, especially among Black and Latino households.
  • Nationally, the unemployment rate declined a bit in May, suggesting that the national economic collapse may have bottomed out. The small improvement for May only very partially offsets the major losses from March and April. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it might take a decade to fully recover.
  • Despite the overall drop, black and Asian unemployment actually increased in May.
  • Due to measurement challenges related to furloughed workers, official unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics likely understate actual unemployment by as much as 5 percentage points.

Faced with a fast-growing public health crisis and woefully inadequate national pandemic preparation, we did the right thing by shutting down huge swaths of our economy that relied on face-to-face interactions. The painful consequence has been massive job losses that for many weeks straight have broken every record set before this crisis hit. So much so that graphs of weekly unemployment claims have literally jumped off the charts.

Concerningly, despite a multi-week decline in unemployment claims since March 28th, the week of June 6th saw a 65 percent increase in claims as compared to the previous week. Claims have again declined through June 20th, though these recent weekly fluctuations suggest that Massachusetts’ economy has not quite stabilized. As a result of these three months of unprecedented layoffs, Massachusetts now has an official unemployment rate over 16 percent.

While the shape of the above graph looks almost identical for the country as a whole, Massachusetts has been particularly hard hit. For many years, our local economy was stronger, and beginning in mid-2007 we had consistently lower unemployment than the national average. But this changed in April and May—now Massachusetts has a higher unemployment rate than the U.S. as a whole, even as unemployment across the U.S. fell in May. This is likely a result of a more severe COVID-19 outbreak than many other states.

The absolute level of these unemployment rates is almost certainly understated as well. Due to the unique nature of this economic shutdown, some furloughed workers appear to have been misclassified in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey and not counted as unemployed. As result, the actual U.S. unemployment rate may have been around 3 percentage points higher in May, and 5 percentage points higher in April. Our state unemployment rate is likely understated by a similar amount.

We’ve also begun to analyze results from a brand new weekly Census Bureau survey measuring household experiences during the coronavirus pandemic called the Household Pulse Survey. One particularly compelling measure we've analyzed assesses people’s self-reported concerns about possible future loss of income. The first few months of data show that while there was a general decline in economic anxiety in early-May, anxiety increased again in Massachusetts during late May and early-June, especially among Black, Asian, and Latino households.

For the most recent survey period, 30 percent of respondents statewide (same as the prior week) expected someone in their household to lose employment income over the coming four weeks. That share jumps to 41 percent for Black respondents and 59 percent for Latino respondents.

This new nationwide Pulse Survey has been surveying tens of thousands of people each week during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey relies on the Census Bureau's Master Address File, which provides a strong platform for distributing the questionnaire. However, the survey is an experimental tool that continues to be refined. The response rate has been quite low (between one and four percent of surveyed households), so some of the fluctuation that we observe week-to-week may well be driven by issues of sample size rather than marked shifts in actual economic anxiety. Standard errors are particularly large when disaggregating by smaller geographies and by race, so that’s why here we present this data only for Massachusetts and not also for Boston. Even still, these survey data should be interpreted with a bit of caution. We plan to continue tracking results over the coming weeks and months and will look closely at whether sample sizes increase and if it makes sense to start looking at data for Boston and not just the state as a whole.

Compounding the economic pain that has already been felt is the fact that many people who’ve lost their jobs during this crisis are people who were already in high-risk categories to begin with—e.g., lower-wage workers and undocumented immigrants with limited access to critical public supports. By far the largest job losses have been in in Food Service & Accommodation and Retail, sectors that tend to be made up of lower-wage service jobs.

That said, Massachusetts is seeing job losses across all industries. It’s striking that nearly 130,000 people working in Healthcare & Social Assistance have filed for unemployment. At first blush, this seems like one sector that would be more sheltered from immediate risk of job loss, but even hospitals are laying off workers who are not on the front lines of responding to COVID-19. While this is starting to change, health sectors like dentistry and chiropractic are only now opening up with significant restrictions.

The data in the graph to above reflects traditional unemployment claims and not additional claims for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program created through the recent federal recovery law. The PUA program covers people like gig economy workers and the self-employed. The Department of Labor reports that as of June 13, Massachusetts had roughly 425,000 continuing claims for this unemployment program.

Another way to visualize the economic impact of the COVID crisis is by looking at data from OpenTable on the number of people eating meals at restaurants in its network (either through reservations or walk-ins). The graph below compares this data for a given week in 2020 to its equivalent week in 2019. Restaurants fully closed in Boston and Massachusetts roughly four days before those nationwide. Stay-at-home orders covered most of the United States for all of April, and so there was basically no one dining-in at any restaurants all the way into May.

On May 1, a steady uptick in seated dining nationwide began as some states reopened weeks before we did in Massachusetts. Recently however, following a surge in COVID-19 cases across the South and West, restaurant dining nationwide has plateaued once again. Some states that reopened restaurants relatively early--like Florida and Texas—have limited indoor dining once again. Seated outdoor dining opened in Massachusetts as part of Phase II on June 8th, with indoor dining following on June 22nd, and that’s when we started observing a more marked rebound for Boston and Massachusetts.

On the earlier end of the graph, these data show that in-restaurant dining actually plummeted well before states ordered restaurants closed. In Massachusetts, for instance, the number of seated meals began dropping in early March, a couple of weeks before Governor Baker ordered restaurants closed for in-person dining, which occurred on March 23. The same dynamic appears on the more recent side of the graph: while states can allow restaurants to open, they can’t force people to patronize them. There’s also no guarantee that states won’t limit indoor dining again as COVID-19 cases rise, as we see in the more recent data.

In May, the Harvard-based research center Opportunity Insights launched a Economic Tracker that combines widely-used public data with real-time economic data from a variety of private sector sources not usually available to the general public—e.g., data from payroll processors, financial service firms and e-commerce outlets. Taken together they facilitate more real-time monitoring of the effects of the COVID crisis nationwide and down to the metro level.

The economic slowdown has been dramatic and widespread across a range of dimensions including employment rates, hours worked, job postings and a few others. The graph below shows small business revenue in Greater Boston compared to the country overall. Small business revenue dropped sharply everywhere, as the rapid closure of the economy has been especially challenging for smaller firms. But while revenue has increased across the U.S. as some states have begun reopening, the graph shows that with greater virus spread and stricter lockdowns, Greater Boston and Massachusetts have been hit harder than much of the rest of the country. As of June 22, small business revenue in Greater Boston was down 32.2 percent compared to early January. Even though Massachusetts has seen some dips in our recovery of small business revenue since early May, the state has largely trended upwards towards pre-pandemic norms. With the state’s slower phased reopening, we’re not likely to see as immediate a bounce back the way we’ve seen in states such as Texas. However, their progress may yet be in jeopardy as COVID-19 cases surge in the state.

Opportunity Insights 1

This data suggests that early April may have been a low point. Total consumer spending, which collapsed in April across both the United States and Massachusetts, rebounded significantly by early June. However, while Massachusetts' spending continues to return to normalcy, that increase has stalled and likely reversed across the United States. Still, stagnant small business revenue growth and increasing consumer spending suggest much of this spending is going towards larger corporations – rather than more local small businesses.

Opportunity Insights 2

To see interactive presentation of these graphs and others, go to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker online.

Demand for Social

Assistance Programs

(Updated 7/6/2020)

COVID-19’s public health and economic impacts have grown in parallel since about mid-March, leading to increased demand for social services and public assistance programs. Many public agencies are scrambling to meet this growing demand while at least partially administering these critical programs through new remote systems, so for them making real-time data available has been an understandable challenge. One way to get a sense for how much greater this need is, though, is by analyzing the volume of calls made to the state’s 211 call center, which is administered by the United Way. The call center connects people with public or private programs that can answer their questions or fill their needs—ranging from help applying for rental assistance to finding subsidized daycare slots for their kids.

The graph above compares call levels for the eighteen-week period covering the onset of the COVID crisis in 2020 with the equivalent period between March and July 2019—overall call volume has doubled, with concern about food showing a 419 percent increase (from 997 food-related calls over this period in 2019 to just over 5,000 in 2020). With hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents losing their jobs, calls related to employment and income are also way up.

Most of the calls to the state’s 211 center came during the early weeks of the outbreak, as residents struggled to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and find support – food, housing, unemployment insurance - for the situations in which they suddenly found themselves. As people have become more accustomed to life during the pandemic, calls have gradually decreased – though they remain around twice as high as 2019’s weekly volumes.

Applications for State Public Assistance Programs

The state has also begun releasing some data on applications received for state-administered public assistance programs. Demand for these programs tends to increase as families face greater economic hardship. In the weeks preceding the emergency declaration here in Massachusetts, applications for these programs hovered at a little over 5,000 per week. As the COVID crisis took root over the course of March, applications surged. Many people lost work and applications for these three key programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)—totaled over 20,000 per week by the end of March. During April, new applications for these programs fell from the March peak, but they’re still more than twice as high as their pre-crisis levels. The decline continued throughout May and by June new weekly applications for social assistance returned to pre-crisis levels.

SNAP is by far the largest of these programs. It functions as an entitlement, meaning that the federal government must provide necessary food support to all families that meet eligibility qualifications. Recent federal recovery efforts have expanded SNAP in several ways in order to help this critical food support go further:

  • Congress appropriated an additional $16 billion to help cover the surge in SNAP applications nationwide. Congress also created a new Pandemic EBT program, which automatically adds an extra $28.50 per week to the Electronic Benefits Transfer card of any family with school-aged children who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. The state uses EBT cards for delivering food and economic assistance to families receiving SNAP, TAFDC and EAEDC.
  • States now have flexibility to increase the level of support many households receive, providing all families the maximum benefit for their household size. Massachusetts has taken advantage of this flexibility. In 2019, for instance, a family of three could receive a maximum monthly benefit of $505 but the average benefit was about $365. This new provision will temporarily give all families the full maximum.
  • The Department of Agriculture is providing Pandemic EBT for households with children who receive free and reduced-price lunch at schools that are now closed. This additional assistance will be available for students in low-income households that receive SNAP and those that do not already receive nutritional assistance.
  • Work requirements are waived for SNAP during the pandemic.

Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) is administered by Massachusetts under the federal Transitional Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant. It is not an entitlement and so funding is limited. The federal response to COVID-19 has not included any provisions around TANF thus far. However, there are state policy proposals for boosting TAFDC payments here in Massachusetts.

Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) is a state program that delivers aid to people in Massachusetts who are disabled or caring for a disabled person, elderly, or children who are unable to receive TAFDC aid.

Transportation and

Mobility Patterns

(Updated 7/6/2020)

Some of the best available real-time data we have measures transportation and mobility patterns across Greater Boston. For the most part these measures show dramatic reductions in movement out of people’s homes, as people largely followed state-at-home orders during March, April and much of May. Starting in late May, though, we’ve seen some modest increases as stay-at-home orders are slowly being phased down, suggesting that late April was a low point for these mobility patterns.

But these are still the early days of increased travel away from home. As formal stay-at-home orders are being phased-out, how long will it take for our transportation patterns to return to what they were before COVID? Or will we never return to our previous patterns? Will advocates of urban redesign succeed in using this period of unprecedented disruption to shift more of our city streets away from cars to make them more pedestrian-friendly? Is there a risk that road traffic actually worsens beyond the terrible levels we experienced before the crisis, due to heightened concerns around traveling in close proximity to others on public transportation? Perhaps expanded remote work partially offsets what would have otherwise been an increase in road traffic? Might more commuters choose to walk or bike, where possible? At this point, no particular path forward is pre-ordained. This moment provides an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the status quo, but how things ultimately change will depend upon the decisions we make collectively as a Commonwealth.

First, we look at MBTA ridership below, which showed a decline in ridership of more than 90 percent for almost every line after the March 10 state of emergency declaration. The greatest decrease in ridership occurred across mid-April. For a typical workday, this equates to a loss of roughly 800,000 riders – with losses felt most acutely on the Silver line, serving Logan Airport. Blue Line ridership declined less than all other lines, as a higher number of frontline workers are dependent on the line. After a period of closure for repairs, the Blue Line has seen a gradual uptick in ridership, and is now 67 percent or so below its March 10th ridership (lower during the holiday). Nevertheless, most of Boston’s rapid transit lines remain about 80-90 percent below the system’s March 10th ridership.

To analyze road traffic we look at weekly data from toll gantries along the Mass Pike for four regions of the state going west to east (Westfield to Allston). The graphs measure the rate of vehicles per hour heading eastbound at 15-minute periods across all weekdays. In early April, we saw sharp declines in traffic volumes across all gantries, by 50 to 75 percent.

While all four gantries saw declines during the early weeks of the pandemic, the scale of those drops varied by location. The smallest drop-off occurred at the Westfield gantry – of 47 percent in early April. A larger portion of traffic in this part of the state is made up of trailer trucks, many of which are still operating, and residents have fewer transportation options in these less densely populated parts of the state. The further east you go, the sharper the drop, with the biggest decreases occurring during the first two weeks of April.

We’ve now seen steady increases in road traffic since early-May, with a somewhat sharper increase for June. While traffic levels remain relatively low at the Boston gantry in Allston, even there traffic is back to around 45 percent of its pre-crisis level. Gantries to the west seen even more of a rebound: both Westfield and Charlton are now only roughly 7-9 percent below their March 2nd level.

One difference that remains despite these rebounds is the fact that rush-hour peaks largely remain flattened. What used to be large spikes at the beginning and end of the typical workday are now much less pronounced – with the possible exception of the morning commute in Weston - as the regular rhythm of weekdays has largely been upended.

Activity at Logan Airport had slowed dramatically as well. In May 2019, Logan served almost 4 million passengers. This May, Logan served just over 200 thousand passengers - a year-over-year decrease of almost 95 percent. The year-over-year difference for all airports nationwide was similar for April (95 percent drop). For May, passenger traffic at airports nationwide rebounded a bit faster than at Logan—“only” a 90 percent drop for the U.S. compared to a 95 percent drop at Logan.

Freight volume is down “only” 25-30 percent because in some cases airlines have shifted more to freight in order to continue business.

Airport traffic may be one of the slower measures to rebound after society opens up. A large share of flights are somewhat non-essential—either vacations that can be totally forgone or business travel that can be substituted by phone calls and video conferencing. According to one industry survey, for instance, 40 percent of passengers say they plan to wait at least six months after containment is over before flying again.

Through a trove of cell phone GPS data, Google has unique (sometimes troubling) access to data on our personal lives. It has made topline data available during the COVID crisis through regular releases of Google Mobility Reports. The data is available for counties, states and countries worldwide and gives us a sense for how much different sorts of otherwise regular activity has declined.

As the U.S. begins to reopen, mobility patterns suggest Americans are starting to pick up their activity, although many measures remain well below pre-crisis levels. Time spent in residences has fallen from mid-April highs to about 7 percent above pre-crisis levels in Suffolk County, and to 4 percent nationally. Trips to parks are much more variable, but as the weather improves, more people are spending times outdoors. Massachusetts residents in particular appear to be visiting parks more than people nationwide, but Bostonians and other Suffolk County residents are only just above their pre-crisis level.

Travel to workplaces and retail and recreation establishments remain more depressed, with local levels even further below the national average. However, with Massachusetts entering phase two of the reopening plan in June, travel to work has begun increasing.

International comparisons are also pretty interesting. The United States has adopted more physical distancing than Sweden, which has gotten lots of attention for not imposing strict lockdowns across the board. By contrast, physical distancing in the U.S. is now slightly lower than in Italy and remains much lower than the United Kingdom, which are both countries that had worse outbreaks than the U.S.

Census 2020

Response Rates

(Updated 7/6/2020)

Boston Indicators wrote this section with input and guidance from the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, which supports community organizations and grassroots leaders who are organizing within their community to ensure the most accurate count in the Commonwealth.

The United States Census is the oldest regularly recurring data-gathering exercise in the world. It provides invaluable information about who makes up our large, diverse country, and it helps us analyze how we’re changing over time. Since it won’t happen again until 2030, results from the 2020 count will have decade-long implications for how particular communities are represented in government and for how hundreds of millions of federal dollars are distributed across Massachusetts cities and towns. For more detail, see Boston Indicators’ report Census 2020 Explained: How It Works and What’s at Stake for Massachusetts.

Online self-response for the 2020 census went live on March 12, two days after Governor Baker declared a state of emergency. Having the Census emphasize online responses for the first time this year has provided a useful mechanism for households to fill out their forms even while socially isolating at home. But even though the first wave of the 2020 count is happening online, a core strategy for getting a complete statewide count has always involved proactive door-to-door outreach to support households that nonetheless do not fill out their form online.

While Census self-response rates grew steadily in March and April, since around mid-May both Massachusetts and U.S. self-response rates have plateaued. As a result of the pandemic, many local organizations that would typically lead get-out-the-count efforts were shuttered during the first months of the count. Even though libraries, community centers, Councils on Aging and more are slowly reopening, they remain largely unable to offer their spaces or services to assist in self-response. So while Massachusetts is on track for a higher response rate than the U.S. overall, we are still below our self-response rate for the 2010 Census, at 68 percent.

Looking at statewide response rates, however, obscures large differences within Massachusetts. Lower-income communities, especially those with large immigrant populations that speak a variety of different languages, have tended to have lower census response rates. A range of socio-economic challenges contribute to these lower response rates, but this year may be especially challenging in wake of the Trump administration’s attempt (albeit unsuccessful) to add a citizenship question. While this question was not ultimately included, it’s quite possible that the effort itself is still having a chilling effect leading to depressed response rates.

The two interactive features below allow users to analyze which communities have the lowest self-response rates to date and also compare that with important demographic information. The map in the first feature shows self-response rates for every city and town statewide, and the interactive table allows for detailed comparisons with measures of population change since the last decennial census in 2010. The most recent population estimates we have are from the 2018 American Community Survey, so these tools compare roughly eight years of change (note: these estimates are especially rough for smaller cities and towns). Places that have changed most since 2010 are of particular concern, because without an accurate 2020 count these new population centers risk being underrepresented for years to come.

Perhaps most troubling from this data is the fact that Chelsea has both the state’s single-highest coronavirus infection rate and also the second-lowest self-response rate (among the largest 20 percent of cities and towns). Chelsea’s response rate of 48.1 percent is 16 percentage points below the current state average.

The vast majority of cities and towns with low response rates are places with large immigrant populations and large communities of color, and are often particularly hard-hit by COVID-19. These include places like Lawrence, Everett and Worcester. Falmouth, Fall River and Barnstable are three outliers in this regard. They also have lower self-response rates but are each more than 75 percent White.

Below is an interactive scatterplot that uses some of the same data to facilitate comparisons between current self-response rates and individual measures of population change from 2010 to 2018. We’ve set the default graph to look at foreign born residents, because they are among the groups that most often go undercounted. We’ve also set the default to look at total population change, but for each of these measures you can also toggle to percent change from 2010 in order to adjust for different base population sizes.

Some additional key findings from this work:

  • The cities and towns with the greatest absolute increases in foreign born, Black and Latino populations also have some of the lowest self-response rates statewide. Absent strong get-out-the-count efforts in coming weeks and months, these communities are at the greatest risk of being further underrepresented by the 2020 Census.
  • Boston’s foreign born population increased by about 27,000 between 2010 and 2018, and troublingly, the city’s current self-response rate is only 52 percent (the sixth-lowest among the state’s largest cities and towns).
  • Brockton had the largest absolute increase in its Black population statewide, larger even than Boston’s Black population increase (+17,713 vs +17,600), even though Boston’s total population is more than seven times as large. No other cities have gained more than 5,000 Black residents.
  • By contrast, the state’s Latino population is growing across a larger number of different cities. Boston still has the largest growth of Latinos in Massachusetts, but 11 cities have grown their Latino populations by around 5,000 or more. Asian population growth has also been more evenly spread.
  • Many towns in far western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod also have very low self-response rates. The Census Bureau uses a different, more labor-intensive process for encouraging responses in these more remote areas, and this process has been slowed significantly due to the coronavirus.
  • Among largest 20 percent of communities statewide, Chelsea, Boston and Cambridge are the three fastest-growing—each of them have grown roughly 13 percent since 2010. While Cambridge is doing a bit better, all three have self-response rates well below the state’s 2010 level.

Reacting to the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, the Census Bureau extended the response period by 3 months to October 31. In addition, every operational timeline has been extended. Originally scheduled to open in March, field offices across the United States only began opening in May, with Massachusetts’ offices opening later than many others on May 25th. Non-response follow-up has been extended to the end of the self-response phase, and a number of other timelines have been extended, including for group quarters and other enumeration processes. Likewise, the homeless count has been officially rescheduled to September 22-24 after originally being scheduled for early April. Processing of data for political redistricting purposes has been pushed back to May 1, from January 1, 2021.

Without doing effective real-time organizing work over these coming months, there’s real risk that federal funding and political representation for these lower-income communities will suffer over the coming years.