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 out Wednesday reveals households that have either had COVID-19 or have someone with a disability or special needs are much more likely to also be hurting financially.
The polling was conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
That was the case for a young mother named Elizabeth, who was waiting for her kindergartener to get out of school in Smyrna recently. Her house is recovering from 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 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 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 — 64% — have less work.
Other key takeaways include:
- 54% of households with annual incomes below $100,000 report serious financial problems, compared to 20% of households with incomes over $100,000
- Of households with a disability, 63% report facing serious financial hardship and 37% report using up all or most of their savings
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.
“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 around 3,500 respondents to the NPR poll, 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.
Those 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 cushion, she says, even though she had made $14 an hour. “I had enough savings built up for about three months,” she says. “That’s pretty much gone.”
She’s had trouble qualifying for unemployment and never received her federal stimulus money.
“I was very upset about having to use savings, but I had to remind myself that I put this money away for times like this,” she says.
But many other respondents didn’t have savings to start with, says Harvard researcher Mary Gorski Findling, who helped analyze the results.
‘We’re talking about more than half of these households have nothing to fall back on, and it’s scary,” she says.
It’s becoming clear that COVID-19 is not the great equalizer that some claimed in the early days. Kinika Young of the Tennessee Justice Center helps clients fight for health care and food stamp benefits. She’s seen the inequity up close.
“Initially, people said this pandemic had us all in the same boat. And others were like no, we’re not in the same boat,” she says. “Some people are riding out the storm in yachts, whereas others are holding onto driftwood.”
And for some, it’s all they can do to keep their head above water.
Selenesol Singleton’s dad died last year. The 20-year-old in Burbank, Calif., then lost a job when COVID hit, and the film set where Singleton worked shut down. Singleton got sick, and COVID tests were in such short supply the hospital said just to assume it was COVID.
But Singleton’s 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 living paycheck to paycheck wouldn’t cut it. Singleton decided it was time to start community college rather than following a dream to go to school in New York.
Singleton is now a few weeks into the semester at Pasadena City College but still not sure how the tuition bill will get paid.