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Despite Pandemic, Civically Engaged Youth Report Higher Well-Being

An analysis of our 2020 post-election survey shows that civic access and participation helped some youth thrive despite the economic impact of COVID-19

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic first led to lockdowns, closures, and other major disruptions to American life. In that time, we have seen how the pandemic has affected young people in myriad ways: reshaping their education, social lives, economic opportunities, and ability to engage in civic life. In our pre-election poll, conducted in May-June of 2020, we found that more than two-thirds of young people (ages 18-29) reported being moderately or significantly economically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also found that the pandemic disproportionately impacted young Black Americans. Compared to other racial/ethnic groups, Black youth were the most likely to report being affected financially, and almost half of Black youth who were not in school reported being unemployed.

CIRCLE’s post-election youth survey allows us to paint a fuller picture of how youth continued to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, their concerns about the country’s response to this public health crisis, and the ways in which it has shaped their political attitudes and participation. It also deepens our understanding of how the pandemic continues to disparately affect young people of different identities, backgrounds, and experiences.

Our key findings include:

  • Young people are still negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the worst economic impacts borne by youth of color and 18- to 21-year-olds.
  • The pandemic has taken a huge toll on young people’s mental health, and youth who report being the most economically affected by COVID-19 hold the lowest scores on our well-being scale
  • Young people tend to be either struggling, maintaining, or activating during COVID, and the differences between each group reflected differences in civic access.

About the Poll: The CIRCLE/Tisch College Post-Election Poll was a web survey fielded from November 3 to December 2, 2020 By Gallup, Inc. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who were eligible to vote in the United Stated in the 2020 General Election. Sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,645 eligible adults completed the survey. Of the total completes, 1,138 were from the Gallup Panel (stratified panel) and 1,507 were from the Dynata (opt-in) Panel. Unless stated otherwise, for the sake of this analysis, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of sampling error, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is ± 3.7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Margins of error (MoE) for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-7.6 to 9.4 percentage points, with Asian MoE being =/-9.4 points.

As of December 2020, the COVID-19 Pandemic Still Had a Devastating Impact on Youth

Echoing the findings from our summer 2020 pre-election analysis, this most recent survey finds that young people have been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly three-quarters (71%) of youth said that the pandemic has had a “moderate” or “significant impact” on their financial situations, slightly higher than the 66% who said the same in our pre-election survey. Just 1 in 10 respondents said COVID-19 has had no impact whatsoever. Another troubling trend that persisted throughout 2020  was that, even in November/December, many young people still could not find work. Among youth in our poll who were not currently enrolled in school, one-third (34%) reported being unemployed, and among 18- to 21-year-olds the unemployment rate was 44%.

As we also documented last year, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the finances of young people of color. Almost four-in-five (77%) Black youth and three-quarters of young Latinos said that they were moderately or significantly affected by COVID-19, slightly higher than the 68% of white youth who said the same. On a more positive note, the sizable difference in unemployment rates by race/ethnicity we saw last summer had mostly disappeared by the end of the year. In June 2020, Black youth were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as youth of other racial/ethnic groups; in our post-election poll in November/December, we found that about one-third of both white (33%) and Black (31%) youth reported being unemployed.

Interestingly, despite many young voters reporting that the pandemic was a major election issue for them, presidential vote choice did not vary between youth who experienced different levels of economic impact from COVID-19. About three-quarters (74%) of young people who reported not being economically affected by the pandemic voted for President Biden, compared to 77% of young people who were significantly affected . There also were no differences in self-reported voter participation: youth who were significantly affected reported casting a ballot at the same rate as youth who say they were not impacted at all.

One possible explanation for the lack of differences we might have expected to see is that, while COVID-19 has created disparate economic barriers that can hinder participation in civic life, it has also motivated the young people who were most affected to take actions and help others. 

The Relationship Between COVID-19 and Youth Well-Being

In addition to its negative effects on young people’s financial situations, the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed many young people’s mental health, perceptions of how their lives are going, and sense of well-being. In our post-election poll, we asked young people to assess their perceived sense of well-being using a modified version of the one-item MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status (Adler et al. 2000), which prompts youth to imagine a ladder with ten rungs, with the bottom of the ladder (rung 0) representing “the worst possible life for you” and the top (rung 10) representing “the best possible life for you.” Overall, the mean score for all youth in our survey was a 5.8 out of 10. However, when we disaggregate these ratings by impacts from COVID-19, some differences emerge. While youth who say they were not economically affected by the pandemic scored a 6.8/10, the scores steadily decreased along with levels of economic distress, and youth who say they were significantly economically affected by COVID had a mean score of 5.5/10.

To deepen our understanding of the connections between COVID-19’s impact on youth, their perceived well-being, and their civic attitudes and actions in 2020, we used a k-means approach to split our survey respondents into groups based on how they ranked themselves on the life assessment scale and the extent to which they felt negatively economically affected by COVID-19. We identified three groups of roughly equal sizes using this method, which we will call Struggling, Maintaining, and Activating.   

Youth who we categorized as Struggling were hit especially hard by the pandemic, which correlated with a diminished sense of overall well-being. Almost two-thirds of youth in this group reported being significantly affected by COVID—and just 2% of young people reported experiencing only minor impact. Struggling youth provided very low scores on the life assessment scale as well, with an average rating of 3.7/10 (compared to the 5.8/10 average for all youth). Members of the Struggling group were also not bullish on their future prospects in life, predicting that in five years they would have the lowest well-being score. This group was the most likely to be neither in school nor in the workforce: 45% of young people in this group were not employed, compared to 26% of other young people in the other two groups. It also had the highest percentage of young people with a high-school diploma or less. 

Youth in the Maintaining group reported being the least economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. No member of this group reported experiencing moderate or very significant economic harms from COVID-19, and 35% reported experiencing no impact whatsoever. While one-quarter of young people in this group said they were unemployed, this group seemed the least concerned overall with the personal financial impacts of the pandemic and they viewed their life situations mostly positively. Their average sense of well-being was 6.2/10, which is slightly above the overall average. 

Youth in the Activating group reported being just as impacted by COVID-19 as young people who were in the Struggling group; however, perhaps unexpectedly, this cohort of young people rated themselves the highest of all groups on the well-being scale. Along with the Maintaining group, youth in the Activating group were also more likely to say they will be doing well in the future, according to the well-being scale. Of the three groups we identified, Activating youth are the most racially diverse: just under half of the group is white, compared to 60% and 63% of the Struggling and Maintaining youth, respectively. One key issue that separated youth in this group from other young people was racial justice: Activating youth were the most likely to take action on racial justice, both in 2020 and in previous years. They were also the most likely to feel “overwhelmed or paralyzed” by the extent of racism in society, yet the most likely to feel an urgency to combat racism.

COVID-19 and young People’s Civic Access

Young people in all three groups held a strong belief in the promise of their civic power and of engaging in the 2020 election. Roughly equally across the three groups,  overwhelming majorities of young people agreed that youth like them have the power to change things in the country, that it is their responsibility to get involved, and that people like them should participate in political activity and decision making in the country.

However, we saw differences between our three groups in outreach from key civic stakeholders and in access to community institutions. For instance, Maintaining youth and Struggling youth were the least likely to be contacted by political parties, campaigns, and organizations in the run-up to the 2020 election, whereas Activating youth were the most likely to be reached by these groups. This was true regardless of political party: the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign both contacted Activating youth at higher rates than they did youth in other groups. Activating youth also received the most outreach from community and youth-serving nonprofit organizations, while the other two groups lagged behind.  As past CIRCLE research has found, campaign contact is a key driver of youth voter turnout, so insufficient outreach can leave youth under-prepared for engaging in the election. Political contact and political engagement can also have a symbiotic relationship: outreach to young people can foster civic participation, and, conversely, campaigns can more easily contact youth who frequently engage in civic life.

One major difference between youth who were Activating in response to COVID-19 and those who are Struggling seems to be access to civic power. As CIRCLE research has demonstrated, gaps in young people’s engagement patterns are more often driven by disparate access than disparate enthusiasm. Accordingly, even though young people across the board displayed an appetite for making civic contributions, many Struggling and Maintaining youth lacked entry points to that contact-engagement feedback loop. We asked young people a series of questions about how they had engaged in civic life in the past year, and each group of young people reported varying levels of experience. Activating youth were more likely to say that they participated in civic groups, such as political parties or civil rights organizations, than either of the other two groups. They were also more likely to have contacted a political official to advocate for issues and to have joined a protest, march, or political demonstration in the past year. 

To gauge the differences in access to civic engagement opportunities, we asked young people whether they had ever been in certain settings in which their voices were valued. We specifically asked whether they were able to provide their perspective on a community issue, participate in a decision-making process, or provide input on where government funds should be spent. Once again, Activating youth had more experience in these empowering civic environments. Three in five youth in this group had been in settings where they could participate in decision-making with others, compared to just 48% of Struggling and Maintaining youth. Moreover, about half (49%) of young people who were Activating had been invited to conversations about where public funds would be spent, compared to 33% of Struggling and 29% of Maintaining youth. 

Takeaways From the Diversity of Youth Experiences in the COVID-19 Era

Our data highlights how young people’s experiences and even well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic can be vastly different depending on their levels of civic access and engagement. Youth who have been severely financially affected by the pandemic tended to be either Activating or Struggling, depending on their overall sense of well-being which in itself was shaped by access to and experiences with civic opportunities. In contrast, youth who were less affected by COVID-19 tended to be Maintaining—experiencing less economic hardship, but still overlooked by some civic institutions and relatively disconnected from civic life. 

Though young people in all three groups held similarly strong beliefs in their ability to make a difference, contact and engagement habits still varied substantially, highlighting the effects of disparate civic access. To reduce these gaps, each of these three groups of young people may need different support from civic stakeholders and may be best reached through different avenues. For instance, young people in the Maintaining category were more likely than those in the other two groups to talk to friends about elections or to encourage friends to vote, which indicates that relational outreach may be useful for engaging these youth. Struggling youth were less likely to have volunteered for a campaign than Activating youth, so broader outreach is needed for young people who suffered most from the broader socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19.

It’s also important to remember that the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been asymmetric, disproportionately affecting young people of color, unemployed youth, and young people with less educational attainment. As the consequences of the pandemic continue to reverberate for months and years to come, it will be critical to understand and account for these differences in order to support and engage youth who may have had very different—and in some cases very difficult—experiences. Though the approaches will have to be different for different youth, the goal should be the same: ensuring that we can tap into all young people’s desire and ability to make a difference in civic life by providing opportunities for doing so.


Author: Kristian Lundberg