Material hardship level and unpredictability in relation to U.S. households’ family interactions and emotional well-being: Insights from the COVID-19 pandemic

Sihong Liu, Maureen Zalewski, Liliana Lengua, Megan R. Gunnar, Nicole Giuliani, Philip A. Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has been recognized to provide rare insight to advance the scientific understanding of early life adversity, such as material hardship. During the COVID-19 pandemic, material hardship (i.e., difficulty paying for basic needs) in families of young children has had detrimental effects on caregivers' and children's well-being. In addition to the degree of material hardship, the week-to-week and month-to-month unpredictability of hardship status may add to families' stress and worsen well-being. This study examined the magnitude of and mechanisms underlying the effects of material hardship level and unpredictability on the well-being of U.S. households with young children during the pandemic. Methods: Data were drawn from the RAPID project, a large ongoing national study that used weekly/biweekly online surveys to investigate the pandemic impact on U.S. households with young children. The current study leveraged data from 4621 families who provided at least three responses between April 2020 and October 2021. Results: Findings indicated that racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income households experienced higher levels of material hardship and unpredictability during the pandemic, compared to their White or higher-income counterparts. Levels of pandemic-related material hardship and hardship unpredictability were both significantly associated with worsened well-being among caregivers and children. Finally, the effects of hardship level and unpredictability on well-being outcomes were partially mediated through disrupted family routines. Conclusions: The findings from this study highlight that ensuring equal and adequate access to financial resources, as well as promoting financial stability for households with young children are both critical for maintaining functional family dynamics and promoting caregivers' and children's optimal well-being.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number115173
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Valhalla Charitable Foundation , the Heising-Simons Foundation , the Pritzker Family Foundation , the Buffett Early Childhood Fund , the Imaginable Futures, and the Bainum Family Foundation .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • COVID-19
  • Early childhood
  • Family conflict
  • Family routine
  • Material hardship
  • Unpredictability
  • Well-being


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