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


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.

Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.
Blake Farmer