The Impact of COVID-19: Understanding Basic Needs in the Redwood City & North Fair Oaks Community

Gardner Center Research Associates Brandon Balzer-Carr and Kristin Geiser provide perspective on a study underway to better understand the highest priority needs experienced by families in Redwood City and North Fair Oaks during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discuss the study’s impact on the Gardner Center’s broader strand of work in the area of youth health and wellbeing.

Why were our community partners in Redwood City and North Fair Oaks interested in undertaking this study?

Brandon: Leadership at Redwood City 2020 discussed a desire to have better “line of sight” to their community’s basic needs. The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic and educational fallout has had a far-reaching impact on a host of issues. School closures have limited children’s access to food and healthcare, and parents’ access to childcare. Business closures have left families unemployed and unable to pay for basic necessities such as food and housing. Because the pandemic has impacted everyone in so many profound ways, leadership wanted a clear sense of which needs are most pressing and for whom. Additionally, they have been investing resources to address basic needs — pantry bag giveaways, rental assistance, Wi-Fi hotspots — so they wanted to survey residents in order to learn how much of an impact those resources have had and which needs remain unmet.

How did the community come together to recruit survey respondents during COVID-19?

Brandon: Redwood City 2020 was uniquely positioned to support survey recruitment because they have been connecting local community-based organizations (CBOs), elected officials, and school leaders for decades. The executive director of Redwood City 2020, Rafael Avendaño, has a long list of contacts through his work with various CBOs in the area. While the Gardner Center has strong relationships with the school districts, government offices, and healthcare providers who helped us recruit participants, Rafael was critical in engaging the support of local nonprofits.

English Language Flyer Example

We created Spanish and English flyers and drafted message blurbs to simplify the recruitment process for our partners. We also made a commitment to share findings with all CBOs (via both presentations and written briefs), offered CBOs the chance to dream up their own survey questions, and leveraged the Gardner Center’s reputation for collaborative and rigorous research, all of which facilitated buy-in.

Finally, the pandemic has reminded all of us that we are in it together. We all have a collective responsibility to care for our youth and communities.

Our present collectivist zeitgeist may have contributed to the unification of efforts that we experienced.

What have we learned from the study to date?

Brandon: Survey responses indicate that large shares of Redwood City residents are struggling to meet their basic needs. One third of respondents, answering for their households, have missed rental payments, and one quarter have foregone healthcare because of the cost. Half of respondents who work full-time are also providing over eight hours of childcare per day. One fifth of respondents with school-aged children do not have a computer in their home.

Spanish language respondents, as compared to English language respondents, were six times as likely to be food insecure and twice as likely to be housing insecure, which is a much larger differential than for other demographic comparisons.

Survey responses show that most food insecure households (75%) are aware of or receive local services for food, but only a small proportion of housing insecure renters (25%) are aware of or receive rental assistance. The proportion of unemployed or furloughed respondents increased from 10% to 20% since COVID-19 hit in March 2020. When we statistically weighted responses by race and household size, we saw no change in rates of need, which suggests our survey sample is representative of the broader Redwood City population.

How does this study build upon the Gardner Center’s work on youth health and wellbeing?

Kristin: As an important component of positive youth development, issues of health and wellbeing have been a focus of Gardner Center research from our beginnings. Over the years, we have partnered with youth-serving organizations to conduct a variety of studies designed to build the capacity of individuals, settings, and systems to better support the holistic health and wellbeing of young people and their families. We are keenly aware that acute or sustained experiences of unmet needs have a real impact on the health and wellbeing of youth, their families, and communities.

In the case of COVID-19, the impact of unmet needs on youth is compounded by prolonged isolation, anxiety, and disruptions to developmentally appropriate opportunities for learning, growth, and development. Our findings will provide local organizations with information they can use to develop collaborative, strategic, and effective approaches to meeting the needs of youth and their families and, in turn, support community health and wellbeing.

What’s next?

Brandon: We have conducted three community briefings of the survey results for audiences of direct service providers and elected officials, many of whom supported survey recruitment., We have two more slated for the coming weeks. We have used these briefings as an opportunity to identify subsequent analyses that would be valuable to local stakeholders. Many leaders expressed interest in learning more about households with children ages 0–5, immigrant households, and respondents from smaller CBOs, so we are conducting those analyses for them currently. We are also using the cross-streets respondents provided as a proxy for their home address, to create heatmaps of need in the area. The questions we asked in our survey were derived from national surveys of basic needs, so we are also comparing our findings to theirs in order to refine our estimates of the pandemic’s impact on need.

We will conduct another survey in a couple of months, and will include many of the same questions which will allow us to gauge change over time. We’ll also include a few new questions designed to address issues that emerged in our community briefings. Stakeholders wished to know more about residents’ needs with regard to mental health support, openness to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and preferences for how to re-open schools. We will be repeating this cycle of inquiry for the next two years, conducting numerous surveys and briefings as the pandemic and recovery progress.

The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford develops leadership, conducts research, and effects change to improve the lives of youth