Nearly Two-Thirds Of U.S. Households Struck By COVID-19 Face Financial Trouble

Sep 28, 2020
Originally published on September 28, 2020 5:08 am

COVID-19 has caused widespread damage to the economy — so wide that it can be easy to overlook how unevenly households are suffering. But new polling data out this month reveal households that either have had someone with COVID-19 or include someone who has a disability or special needs are much more likely to also be hurting financially.

That was the case for a young mother named Elizabeth who was waiting for her kindergartener to get out of school in Smyrna, Tenn., when we spoke with her. Her family is still recovering from its bout with COVID-19.

"We had to be quarantined for a while, and me and my husband didn't get paid for it," says Elizabeth, who didn't want to give her last name because she needs to get back to work and worries about her job prospects.

She says she's grateful that in-person school has resumed because she can't afford to sit with her daughter all day, working on a laptop.

"We're just now trying to build our family, and this has hit at a really bad time for us," she says. "It's been rough, it really has."

The poll, conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed around 3,500 respondents nationwide in July and early August and found that nearly half of American households faced lost jobs or pay cuts during the pandemic.

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But for households like Elizabeth's that have had a member fall ill with COVID-19, the share that have lost work jumps to nearly two-thirds — 64%. And 63% of those that have had a sick household member report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak.

Other key findings:

  • 54% of households with annual incomes below $100,000 report serious financial problems, compared with 20% of households with incomes over $100,000.
  • Of households that include someone who has a disability, 63% report facing serious financial hardship, and 37% report using up all or most of their savings.
  • 22% of households in which someone has been sick with COVID-19 have had trouble affording medical care; 9% of households that have had someone sick with the virus lost their health insurance during the pandemic, and 7% didn't have it even before the outbreak's start.

Health and wealth have always been intertwined in the United States. But Melinda Buntin, who chairs the department of health policy at Vanderbilt University, says this polling provides some timely details.

"We knew the financial hardship was more extreme," Buntin says. "Now we can look at that intersection and see that there are groups of people who are very disproportionately affected by this pandemic."

Those feeling a greater impact include households with someone who has a disability.

Tiffany Butler, one of the respondents to NPR's poll, is a mother with three boys and a foster daughter in Houston. She supports her family through her work for a temp agency, staffing big events for conventions and pro sports games.

Those events came to a sudden halt in March — first for two weeks, then a month.

"Then they said another month," Butler says. "So I'm like, 'Am I just out of a job?' "

Butler was fortunate to have a small financial cushion in the beginning, she says, even though her wages were just $14 an hour. "I had enough savings built up for about three months," she says. "That's pretty much gone."

So far she has been rejected from receiving unemployment payments, partly related to having worked for multiple employers. And she never received the federal stimulus money she was eligible to get.

"I was very upset about having to use savings," she says, "but I had to remind myself that I put this money away for times like this."

Many other respondents didn't have savings to start with, says Harvard University researcher Mary Gorski Findling, who helped analyze the results.

'We're talking about more than half of these households having nothing to fall back on," she says. "And it's scary."

It's becoming clear that COVID-19 is not the great equalizer that some claimed in the early days.

Kinika Young, an attorney with the Tennessee Justice Center, helps clients fight for health care and food stamp benefits. She has seen the inequity up close.

"Initially, people said this pandemic had us all in the same boat," she says. "And others were like, 'No, we're not in the same boat. Some people are riding out the storm in yachts, whereas others are holding on to driftwood.' "

And for some families, it's all they can do to keep their heads above water.

Selenesol Singleton's dad died last year. The 20-year-old in Burbank, Calif., then lost a job when the pandemic hit, and the film set where Singleton worked shut down. Singleton got sick, and tests for the coronavirus were in such short supply that the hospital said just to assume it was COVID-19, based on the symptoms.

These days, Singleton is trying to ride the unwelcome waves into something better.

"I think, like, COVID forced me to pull myself together," Singleton says. "I feel like I really learned a sense of diligence with saving money during this time because I just knew I would need it."

It became clear that living paycheck to paycheck wouldn't cut it. Maybe more education and training, Singleton thought, would offer preparation for a better job. The young film industry worker decided it was time to start classes at a local community college rather than follow a dream to go to school in New York.

Singleton is now a few weeks into the semester at Pasadena City College but is still not sure how even that tuition bill will get paid.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

COVID-19 has caused widespread damage to the economy, so wide it can be easy to overlook how unevenly households are suffering. This month, we've been reporting on a poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and today we're digging into findings that reveal households where someone has had COVID-19 or where someone has a disability or special needs and are much more likely to be hurting financially.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A young mother idles in the school pickup line, mask on, waiting for her kindergartner to get out of school in Smyrna, Tenn., outside Nashville. Her house is getting over COVID-19.

ELIZABETH: We had to be quarantined for a while, and me and my husband didn't get paid for it.

FARMER: Elizabeth didn't want to give her last name because she really needs to get back to work and worries about her job prospects. She says she's grateful that in-person school has resumed because she can't afford to sit with her daughter all day on a laptop.

ELIZABETH: We're just now, like, trying to build our family, and this has all hit at a really bad time for us. So it's been rough. It really has.

FARMER: The NPR poll finds that nearly half of all Americans lost jobs or had their pay cut. But for households like Elizabeth's that have fallen ill with COVID, nearly two-thirds have less work. Health and wealth have always been intertwined, but Melinda Buntin - who chairs the department of health policy at Vanderbilt University - says this polling provides some timely details.

MELINDA BUNTIN: We knew the financial hardship was more extreme, and now we can look at that intersection and say there really are groups of people who are very disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

FARMER: They include households with someone who has a disability. Tiffany Butler is a mother with three boys and a foster daughter in Houston. She supports her family working for a temp agency, staffing big events for conventions and pro sports games. Of course, those came to a sudden halt in March - first, for two weeks.

TIFFANY BUTLER: Then they said a month, and then they said another month. And I was like, so am I just out of a job?

FARMER: Butler says she was fortunate to have a cushion, even making just $14 an hour.

BUTLER: I had enough savings built up for about three months, and that's pretty much gone.

FARMER: She's had trouble qualifying for unemployment and never received her federal stimulus money.

BUTLER: I was very upset about having to use savings. I had to remind myself I put this money away for times like this.

FARMER: Butler is one of around 3,500 respondents to the NPR poll, and her household is among those with a disability. More than 30% of them said their savings have been wiped out. But Harvard's Mary Gorski Findling, who helped analyze the results, says many others said they didn't have savings to start with.

MARY GORSKI FINDLING: So we're talking about more than, you know, half of these households just have nothing to fall back on, and it's scary.

FARMER: It's becoming clear that COVID-19 is not the great equalizer some claimed in the early days. Kinika Young of the Tennessee Justice Center helps clients fight for health care and food stamp benefits.

KINIKA YOUNG: Initially, people said that this pandemic had us all in the same boat, and others were like, no, we're not in the same boat; some people are riding out the storm in yachts, whereas others are holding onto driftwood.

FARMER: Just keeping her head above water is 20-year-old Selenesol Singleton of Burbank, Calif. Singleton's dad died last year. Then when COVID hit, the film set where Singleton worked shut down. Singleton got sick, and COVID tests were in such short supply the hospital said just assume it was COVID. But Singleton's trying to ride the unwelcome waves into something better.

SELENESOL SINGLETON: I think, like, COVID, like, helped me, like, pull myself together.

FARMER: Singleton decided it was time to start community college, rather than following a dream to go to school in New York, and it became clear living paycheck to paycheck wouldn't cut it.

SINGLETON: I really learned a sense of diligence with, like, saving money during this time because I just knew, like, I would need it.

FARMER: But the needs keep coming. Singleton is now a few weeks into the semester at Pasadena City College and says it's still unclear how the tuition bill will get paid.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.