Listening to Voices From the Pandemic

Church programs helped Tonya, a customer-service rep in Atlanta, pay her utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

Steve, a Massachusetts restaurant owner, had to temporarily shutter his businesses but weathered the pandemic thanks to government-relief programs.

Mayra, a Salvadoran immigrant living in Boston, lost her restaurant job. She says 2020 was the worst year of her life.

These stories are part of Cascading Lives, a project that delves into the life histories of dozens of people working in the hospitality industry. Co-directed by Karen V. Hansen, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Sociology, and Boston University sociologist Nazli Kibria, the project examines how cascading moments, like those created by a pandemic, precipitate a constellation of crises in people’s lives and, in some cases, economic decline.

Researchers chose to look at the hospitality industry because it “was a sector of the economy that shut down quickly, and left a lot of people unemployed and absolutely reeling,” Hansen says. Bartenders, housekeepers, restaurateurs, events coordinators, even a circus juggler explain how the pandemic changed their lives.

Among the questions they were asked: How did you manage? What kinds of resources did you have? What difference did those resources make?

The project was funded by a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the Raikes Foundation. It’s part of the Voices for Economic Opportunity Grand Challenge, which seeks to improve our understanding of the barriers to equitable opportunity and mobility.

“Downward mobility is as common as upward mobility, if not more common,” says Hansen. “But social scientists tend to focus on the upward because it’s more consistent with the American dream and what we want to be able to achieve as a society.”