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Economic Pain From Pandemic Is Much Worse Than Expected, NPR Poll Finds

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new survey measures the financial pain as the pandemic goes on. Almost half of American households have suffered serious financial losses, we're told, in a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In the country's four largest cities, the situation is even worse, especially for Latinos and Black Americans; 50% to 80% of those households report serious financial problems. They can't pay their rent or their mortgage or their credit cards, and they've depleted what savings they have had. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on the findings.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The pandemic is creating serious financial problems - job loss, depleted savings or possible eviction. That's despite hundreds of billions in government stimulus and other support. The survey shows economic stress running higher in the country's four largest cities - New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Latino and Black families were substantially more likely to face serious economic distress compared to white counterparts.

Robert Blendon is a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard and co-author of the survey. He says the results show the personal financial challenges run deeper and broader than previously understood.

ROBERT BLENDON: I would've expected that all the aid that was coming from various sources would have narrowed - not eliminated - the differences by race and ethnicity.

NOGUCHI: The survey conducted this summer also found more distress among households making less than $100,000 a year. It suggests a lack of funds creating knock-on effects - trouble paying for food or medical care, which in turn led to serious health consequences.

The survey's implications could mean everything from a bigger drag on the economy to the nation's mental health outlook. And Blendon says the prognosis is grim. At the time of the survey, the federal government was offering $600 a week in additional benefits for the unemployed. That was not renewed after July.

BLENDON: It's going to get worse because there is nothing for the people we surveyed who earn under $100,000 a year. Minority communities are not working full-time to fall back on.

NOGUCHI: Cynthia Maclin is 66 and lives alone in downtown Chicago. Her 45-year career in medical administration ended eight years ago when she got chronic lung disease. Her disability led to major depression, none of which have been treated during the pandemic.

CYNTHIA MACLIN: I have not seen my pulmonary doctor to listen to my lungs, to check my oxygen levels. My psychiatrist - I haven't seen him in about four months. My primary doctor - I haven't seen her. So all these things have an impact.

NOGUCHI: The battery recently died on Maclin's truck, which she relies on to get groceries and medicine. The $1,200 federal stimulus check she received helped pay for it, she says, but that money is now long gone. Financial stressors, she says, make it harder for her to breathe and manage her depression.

MACLIN: This will be the first month that I'm not going to be able to pay rent. I sent my landlord an email yesterday asking him what could I do.

NOGUCHI: Maclin says she's lost eight friends and relatives to COVID-19, including her ex-husband, the father of her two daughters.

MACLIN: The second week of March, all of a sudden, he got sick. So he passed away. He didn't have a place to stay, so I was letting him stay here with me.

NOGUCHI: Above all, Maclin says, coping alone is lonely.

MACLIN: I try so hard not to cry. I guess just speaking to you has opened things up, and that's what has me crying now. And I try so hard. I have nine grandkids and seven great-grandkids. I would love to see them, but I can't.

NOGUCHI: In the NPR poll, 1 in 5 people said family members couldn't get care for serious medical conditions. For those in Houston, the survey found 75% suffered negative health consequences as a result. There is, in other words, a magnifying effect. Ronnette Ramos is a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which helps low-income families on a range of issues from employment and housing to medical benefits. She says she's seen a surge in calls.

RONNETTE RAMOS: There is a minimum of at least three issues per phone call, whether it is housing insecurities where they're not able to pay their rent because of their loss of job or they're dealing with food insecurity. It was leading to their anxiety or their high blood pressure.

NOGUCHI: Ramos says some landlords harass their tenants, trying to find ways around state and federal moratoria on evictions. That's exacerbating what was already a big housing crisis in LA.

RAMOS: Renters pay more than 50% of what they make toward rent. So that doesn't leave much room for life upheaval. And, you know, we've been almost now in six months of life upheaval.

NOGUCHI: Gregory Cooper moved out of Houston after over a year without work. He spent 30-plus years in accounting and operations in the oil and gas industry.

GREGORY COOPER: I mean, I have an MBA, and I have two certifications. But I'm struggling still.

NOGUCHI: Unemployment forced Cooper, who is 60, to move in with his elderly mother in Alexandria, La. He finally landed a government accounting job making about $40,000 a year, half what he used to make. He says it would be terrifying to be without a job.

COOPER: Will you be able to get a job because of the age? Would you be able to get a job because of being Black? We're almost the last people to recover when it comes to unemployment.

NOGUCHI: Cooper says he worries about intensifying unrest over the racial inequities in education and employment, but it also feels familiar.

COOPER: Seeing our parents do it and show us how to make ends meet to actually keep your head up and get through the struggle sometimes is good, versus being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

NOGUCHI: But for Alvaro Castro, financial hardship is a new experience. The father of two was born in Colombia and lives in a suburb of Miami. He was making more than $100,000 a year until he lost his television producer job last September. He's since found work making less as a contractor.

ALVARO CASTRO: I was behind in my mortgage payments. I was behind in my cars - my insurance.

NOGUCHI: He put two cars in storage to reduce the insurance payments.

CASTRO: All that stuff, the kind of things that we had to figure out how to reduce.

NOGUCHI: But there were some things they could not postpone, like his wife's cataract surgery in April.

CASTRO: And I remembered, actually calling me from the hospital and the clinic, and she called and said, I don't have enough to make the copayment.

NOGUCHI: They moved funds around to scrape together the $250 copayment. The pandemic, he says, has given him a different perspective.

CASTRO: Money is not the most important factor in our life. Maybe the most important factor in our life is the way that you relate with others, the way that you share the time with your loved ones or the way that you already appreciate how they feeling about you.

NOGUCHI: That, he says, is the only silver lining.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "IN COLLUSION WITH THE WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.