COVID-19 Has Offered Opportunities for Communities to Come Together

commentary

Jan 13, 2021

Volunteers help at an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, Inglewood, California, November 23, 2020, photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

Volunteers help at an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, Inglewood, California, November 23, 2020

Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters

The past year has been among the most turbulent in recent memory, with a global pandemic killing well over 350,000 Americans, protests against police brutality as well as to foster racial justice, a flagging economy, and a contested presidential election. Might the crises of the past year provide a catalyst for a renewed sense of civic engagement that transcends some of the race and class divisions COVID-19 has exacerbated?

In October of 2020, RAND and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,143 individuals with household incomes under $125,000 to better understand their civic engagement in the current moment. This was the second in a series of four surveys to be conducted, in part through the RAND American Life Panel, with two more to be conducted in 2021. (The first two waves of the survey focused on American health mindset and COVID-19 experiences.)

We designed this panel to emphasize the perspectives of populations historically at greater risk as they face the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and social injustice. Fifty percent of respondents identified themselves as nonwhite, and 45 percent reported an annual household income of less than $50,000.

Many respondents, despite struggling themselves, are engaging in activities to help their neighbors and their communities.

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We found that in these difficult times, many respondents, despite struggling themselves, are engaging in activities to help their neighbors and their communities. Over 50 percent of those surveyed report helping their neighbors, and over 80 percent report supporting local businesses. Twenty-six percent donated or volunteered to help local organizations that help the poor, and 11 percent worked to change a policy or law to help make their communities better.

Figure 1: Community Support Activities

Supported local businesses 81%
Helped your neighbors 51%
Donated and/or volunteered to local organizations helping the poor 26%
Worked to change a policy or law to make your community better 11%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

While helping neighbors or donating to local organizations was key across racial/ethnic and income groups, Black and Hispanic respondents reported more efforts to change policies or laws than white respondents. Black and Hispanic respondents reported somewhat less activity with local businesses than other groups, but the overall rate of support was over 75 percent across all groups.

Figure 2: Community Support by Race and Ethnicity

Supported local businesses

Non-Hispanic Other 86%
Non-Hispanic White 83%
Non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander 79%
Hispanic 77%
Non-Hispanic Black 75%

Worked to change a policy or law to make your community better

Non-Hispanic Other 19%
Non-Hispanic Black 16%
Hispanic 13%
Non-Hispanic White 9%
Non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander 3%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Given pervasive concerns about polarization among racial and economic groups, it is notable that there were no differences by income groups in helping neighbors or in working to change policies or laws. However, supporting local businesses and local organizations that help the poor did differ by income, with higher-income individuals more likely to report these activities than lower-income individuals.

Figure 3: Community Support by Household Income

Donated and/or volunteered to local organizations helping the poor

<$10k 21%
$10k–24,999 20%
$25k–49,999 23%
$50k–74,999 26%
$75k–99,999 35%
$100k+ 32%

Supported local businesses

<$10k 63%
$10k–24,999 70%
$25k–49,999 79%
$50k–74,999 84%
$75k–99,999 87%
$100k+ 87%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

People are often more willing to work on behalf of their communities if they believe others will do the same. Thus, we also asked whether people felt that other people in their community were taking appropriate actions to help limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). In short, were neighbors doing the right thing? Over 80 percent reported that others in their community were taking appropriate actions most of the time or some of the time. But there were differences by race, with Black and Hispanic respondents reporting that these behaviors were occurring somewhat less in their communities.

Figure 4: Perception That Community Is Limiting the Spread of COVID-19 by Race and Ethnicity

Most of the time Some of the time Rarely Never
Non-Hispanic White 45% 45% 8% 2%
Non-Hispanic Black 39% 45% 11% 4%
Hispanic 39% 43% 13% 5%
Non-Hispanic Asian/PI 46% 48% 6% 0%
Non-Hispanic other 54% 38% 6% 3%
Total 43% 45% 9% 3%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Similarly, over 80 percent report the people in their community are taking action to support others who are struggling most or some of the time, but these rates are somewhat lower for Black and Hispanic respondents.

Figure 5: Perception That Community Members Are Supporting Each Other During COVID-19 by Race and Ethnicity

Most of the time Some of the time Rarely Never
Non-Hispanic White 27% 59% 10% 3%
Non-Hispanic Black 23% 54% 18% 6%
Hispanic 19% 50% 24% 7%
Non-Hispanic Asian/PI 22% 61% 13% 4%
Non-Hispanic other 36% 46% 17% 1%
Total 25% 57% 14% 4%

Source: Experiences of Populations at Greater Risk Survey

Civic engagement is important both for the health of democracy and for the health of citizens, something demonstrated in previous research from the United States and other countries. As part of efforts to build a Culture of Health in America, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has cited civic engagement as a critical avenue that links personal health decisions, choices to invest in community well-being, and better community health outcomes.

Evidence from this most recent survey suggests that many Americans are engaging in civic activities to help their communities, and that others in their communities are doing the same. The past year has taken much from the country—but it appears that it retains a solid civic infrastructure that, if used well, could support recovery. Indeed, the fact that people of color are reporting more action in support of policy change may auger well for using post–COVID-19 recovery to address racial and economic disparities. Yet, the fact that low-income and nonwhite respondents report less of other forms of civic engagement may indicate a need to shore up this aspect of civic infrastructure to ensure that all citizens have the resources and opportunities to participate actively.

We will be fielding this survey at two subsequent points between now and summer 2021—with items that probe more deeply into the specific types of opportunities for change that respondents see emerging in the pandemic. This will also provide an opportunity to track how public opinion responds to current extreme upsurges in cases, and the possibility of additional physical distancing measures, as well as to track how civic engagement changes as the pandemic wears on and with a change in leadership in the White House and Congress.


Katherine Carman is an economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and director of the RAND Center for Financial and Economic Decision Making. She is a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Tamara Dubowitz is a senior policy researcher at RAND. Christopher Nelson is a senior political scientist at RAND and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

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