Social, Political, Economic, and Psychological Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In addition to the priority areas described here, RSF is especially interested in research on the social, political, economic, and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis that generated an economic crisis, with job losses within several months that exceeded the job gains of the previous decade and negative effects on all facets of American life. The varying response of institutions, such as government, education, business, contributed to the differential spread of the virus and its effects by geography, race, ethnicity, gender, and social class.  

In response, the Russell Sage Foundation will give high priority over the next several years to rigorous social science research that investigates the immediate and long-term social, political, economic, and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. We are particularly interested in research on the effects of the crisis on vulnerable populations and how they were shaped by both the increased inequalities of the last several decades and the differential effects of federal, state, and local policies implemented in response to the pandemic. We are also interested in how the resulting circumstances and outcomes might influence governments to better anticipate and respond to future crises.

Our priorities do not include analyses of health outcomes or health behaviors as the dependent variable except where the research focuses on how pandemic-induced changes in health outcomes or health behaviors as independent variables had differential effects on social, political, economic and psychological outcomes.

RSF will accept research proposals related to the effects of the pandemic in all programs and special initiatives: Behavioral Economics; Decision Making and Human Behavior in Context; Future of Work; Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration; Social, Political, and Economic Inequality. The following topics include research issues of interest to our core programs but do not comprise an exhaustive list.

Effects on the Economy, Workers and Inequalities
Job losses quickly reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, with economic output likely to fall more in the first two quarters of 2020 than it did during the 2008-09 Great Recession. Congress passed large stimulus bills, but they were insufficient, given that our frayed social safety net left millions of families struggling to make ends meet without access to paid sick/family leave or health insurance. “Social distancing,” remote working and the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” workers have had differential effects by gender, race/ethnicity, education, occupation. The most vulnerable have faced greater risks, including low-wage workers, the elderly, those with chronic health conditions, and those living in close quarters, like jails and prisons or migrant detention facilities. And, many low-wage workers in the service industries are more likely to permanently lose their jobs or be called back to work more slowly than higher-wage workers in other industries. 

What are the consequences in terms of employment, wages and other labor market outcomes that allowed some to work remotely, and how do they vary by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and social class? To what extent has the pandemic altered gender differences for paid and unpaid work? To what extent will the effects of the pandemic and recession contribute to changes in future workplace or employer practices? The recovery from the Great Recession was uneven, with rapid job growth in some metropolitan areas and slow growth in many rural areas. To what extent will the geography of job growth be changed when the economy recovers from the COVID-19 recession?

The economic consequences are likely to last into the recovery, especially for those in low-wage jobs, those just entering the labor force and those nearing retirement. What are the effects of the stimulus bills and related policies on the distribution of economic wellbeing and material hardships such as evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies? How do linguistic or technological requirements for receiving government assistance affect the ability of vulnerable workers and families to get benefits to which they are entitled? What are the consequences for those who are ineligible for assistance, including the undocumented?

Effects on Politics and Political Behavior
During crises, citizens expect governments to take bold actions, including some that are typically carried out in the private sector. How local, state, and federal governments responded to the pandemic may influence elections, from who engages politically, who registers to vote, who votes, or how they vote. To what extent do these effects differ by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and social class?

Trust in institutions may shift based on perceptions of government responsiveness and performance during the pandemic. In recent decades, as inequality increased, legislators were most responsive to the concerns of economic elites. Might that change in the aftermath of the pandemic? To what extent has partisan politics contributed to differing public responses to the pandemic? To what extent will the public shift its evaluation of “elites” (politicians, business leaders, scientists, the media)? How might elite rhetoric or anti-elite conspiracy theories shape public views and responses to the pandemic? How will disparate health and economic outcomes across the states contribute to changes in political engagement, partisan identification, polarization, access to voting or attitudes toward safety net programs and redistribution?

Effects on Immigrants and Racial and Ethnic Minorities
The most vulnerable and disenfranchised, particularly people of color and non-citizens, have been most affected by COVID-19 in part because they are more likely to live in unstable and crowded conditions in under-resourced areas, to earn less, and have lower savings.  Many jobs deemed essential have low wages and few benefits, such as home health aides, nursing assistants, delivery workers, farm workers, grocery and food processing workers.

To what extent have public attitudes toward low-wage workers, people of color and immigrants changed in the aftermath of the pandemic? To what extent did the pandemic contribute to an increase in xenophobia and racism? How has divisive rhetoric from politicians and the media affected stereotypes about Asian Americans? How has the pandemic changed public opinion regarding immigration and immigrants?

Racial/ethnic differences in school quality have contributed to rising inequalities. To what extent have school closures and the move to distance learning exacerbated them?

The Social Fabric and Psychological Effects
The pandemic forced a rapid shutdown of the regular patterns of social interaction that fueled economic and social activities. Most of the population has experienced disruptions in the normal rhythms of everyday life due to mandated social distancing, with the likelihood of continuing disruptions in work, school, social, and family relationships. In response, the infrastructures of education, health, social services and faith-based organizations, government, criminal justice, the law, and many others that depend on interpersonal contact were forced to transform their practices rapidly moving some online, delaying or postponing others, and shutting some down altogether. The consequences of these decisions are not yet understood but are likely to be long lasting, in part due to differential access to digital technology. Which populations, regions, organizations, or institutions have or are likely to prove more resilient? What short- and long-term consequences in institutional and social arrangements can we expect?

The pandemic presents significant threats to physical safety, economic security, and trust in institutions. These threats can influence cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes relevant to financial decision-making, political behavior, and treatment of others. Perceived threats to health/safety, economic wellbeing/standing, and social group memberships (e.g., “American” identity, race/ethnic groups, etc.) can result in either a narrowing of concern for others (increased egocentric, self-protective thoughts and behaviors) or an expansion in concerns for others (increased other-focus, altruistic and pro-social thoughts and behaviors). Also, these threats can engender animus toward those perceived to be outside of one’s circle of concern.

What public messages and appeals might encourage the more self-focused, protective and sometimes antagonistic behaviors and what might contribute to more altruistic, pro-social behaviors? Many of the decisions and behaviors required to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic, including social distancing, depend on the compliance of individuals. What psychological frames and appeals can best promote engagement and behaviors that combat the spread of the virus?

Application Guideline
RSF prioritizes high-quality research projects with strong research designs. We welcome innovative methods for data collection, such as the use of cellphone-based time-use diaries, de-identified cell-phone GPS location tracking or social media data, administrative data, or other sources. Cross-sectional surveys with convenience samples will not be considered. However, we will consider the inclusion of well-designed coronavirus-specific modules into existing surveys.

All letters of inquiry must explain the relevance of the proposed research to the foundation’s programmatic interests. All projects should have clear definitions and measures, sufficient sample sizes and power, evidence of the representativeness of the target population, baseline (or pre-pandemic) information, and the possibility of analyzing differential effects across various groups (e.g., by race/gender/ethnicity, social class, location, household composition, occupation, employment status, national-origin, legal-status, or other).

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