The Pandemic’s Impact on Participants in the Chicago Longitudinal Study at Midlife

Contributed by HCRC

Better understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and families is an important step in improving not only social programs and policies but accountability in government. The Chicago Longitudinal Study (CLS) was developed to address both goals. For nearly four decades, it has tracked the health and well-being of a cohort of 1,500 predominately Black participants born in 1979-1980 who attended district early childhood programs in the mid-1980s.  

From August 2020 to March 2021, the CLS team conducted an online survey of 216 participants in the cohort who were 41 years of age. They were among the 300 who recently completed in-person health exams at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine in Chicago. The brief survey of 10 to 15 minutes documented how the pandemic had so far affected their health, economic, family, and personal well-being. We also sought participants’ views about the response by governments and other public institutions in managing this national emergency. 

We highlight major findings, which provide a snapshot of impacts and consequences of the ongoing pandemic and social and economic upheavals that continue to transform society.

First, a large percentage of participants reported one or more detrimental or devasting effects of the pandemic. Ten percent said they received a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 infection during the time of the survey, with 34% reporting that a family member had. Over 60% noted that a friend or neighbor tested positive.

Most tragically, 16% of participants indicated that a family member died from COVID-19. Fifteen (15) percent noted that a family member was hospitalized, 19% had fallen ill, and 35% lost a job or were laid off.

Concerning personal consequences, 30% reported they lost their job or were laid off, 48% lost productive time at work or in school, and 50% had difficulty paying rent/mortgage. Six in 10 participants were not able to work remotely from home at the time of the survey.

Similar to many national surveys, a substantial majority of participants reported many concerns about their well-being as a result of the pandemic, including their financial and employment status (79%), the toll on their physical and mental health (63%-68%), and uncertainty about school openings and child care (70%).  Nearly half (46%) stated one or more positive changes in their lives, including following better health habits and focusing on career pursuits.

In open-ended comments, many participants addressed the racial inequalities in society that disproportionally affect Black individuals and families. One respondent stated: “I worry about being a minority and receiving the disparity of treatment that frequently happens in the hospital. It happens in the hospital I work in.” 

A third major finding was that a majority of CLS participants were satisfied with the government response to the pandemic, with 63% satisfied with the commitment of state and local leaders to protect public safety; and 64% were satisfied with the information received on preventing the spread of the virus. Only 47% were satisfied about receiving “clear messages about the dangers of the virus.” One third were not satisfied with either their access to diagnostic tests or receiving medical services for themselves or their families.

As noted by a CLS participant, “I don’t think that the media has done a good job with making people aware that COVID is real. I’m also concerned that the people who would like Black people to understand that COVID is real, don’t seem to understand the social and economic aspects that already exist in our lives.” 

Based on the many reactions and reflections submitted, one participant summed up many people’s feelings well:  “The majority of my community has banded together. Community organizers/activists distribute clothes and food to those that are less fortunate. Programs have been developed in order for community members to check-in on one another, both in English and in Spanish. When students returned to school, school supply drives occurred. Fundraising efforts have been created to assist families in neighborhood schools who have lost their jobs. We will continue to navigate this dark time and will pull through.”

These findings show the large and devastating impacts of the pandemic on health and well-being that is only beginning to be fully understood. Although participants reported a large number of harmful and debilitating effects, many of their comments revealed optimism about how their lives and the lives of others can improve. 

What the results make clear, however, is that to improve the health and well-being of young people and families of all ages to desirable levels requires much bigger commitments of time and resources as well as full marshalling of all available evidence on beneficial programs and policies.