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Economy & Business

Black and Latino families are bearing the weight of the pandemic's economic toll

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The pandemic is taking an uneven economic toll on Americans. Black and Latino families have taken the biggest hits. As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, many have seen their hard-won financial progress swept away.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Jonathan Eta (ph) had managed to keep his head above water after he lost his job as an auto detailer at the start of the pandemic. But last month, the emergency unemployment benefits he relied on expired.

JONATHAN ETA: Basically, now we're just out on our own, you know?

WAMSLEY: Eta lives in Los Angeles, where he's a single father to three school-aged children. The financial strain that he'd staved off for 17 months has arrived. He's now three months behind on rent for their one-bedroom apartment, and he's behind on his credit cards and electric bill, too.

ETA: Man, it's just hard to find work, constantly worrying about catching the virus. You know, my kids have caught it - my mother, too. So it's really been real, real rocky, you know. I don't know which way to go.

WAMSLEY: He's far from the only one feeling that pressure. Thirty-eight percent of households across the country report facing serious financial problems over the last few months. That's according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But among Black and Latino households, more than 55% reported serious financial problems. That's compared with 29% of white households.

For Eta, the financial strain has made it hard to sleep, and it's stymied his hopes of moving his family to a bigger place.

ETA: I had some kind of progress going on. Now that's pretty much over with, so I got to start all over. And it's just been pretty rough, you know, to not have any kind of surety of where we're going or when this is going to be over. Any progress is pretty frustrating.

WAMSLEY: The little savings he had are now gone. And that's a major factor in the unequal financial toll of the pandemic.

WILLIAM SPRIGGS: The racial wealth gap is real, and one of its most basic manifestations is not having liquid assets.

WAMSLEY: William Spriggs is professor of economics at Howard University and chief economist to the AFL-CIO. The additional federal aid that expired last month gave people a sense of security, Spriggs says, so they could continue to consume.

SPRIGGS: That's all gone away. And so that is, I think, the No. 1 reason you saw special stress in Latino and Black households because without the boost to the unemployment check, without the stimulus checks still being there, these households simply don't have the savings to endure and be resilient during downturns.

MELISSA: This has been hell. I'm just going to be frank. Excuse my language. But trying to survive without a job, without assistance, with two young children is incredibly hard.

WAMSLEY: Melissa is a single mom in Brooklyn. She's asked we only use her first name. She says she's ashamed at being unable to provide for her children. When the pandemic started, she was working as a home health aide. But because she was caring for her kids, looking after her aunts and uncles and checking in on her mother in a nursing home, she didn't want to work directly with COVID patients.

MELISSA: And they didn't want to hear that. So I was forced to take leave.

WAMSLEY: Around the same time, her wallet was stolen and with it, the state ID and Social Security card she needed to apply for various governmental assistance. And getting replacements has been slow. Without income, she's leaned on extended family and made the most of her pantry while she looks for a job.

MELISSA: I've applied to Target, Kmart, H&M, everything. I've applied everywhere. And it's difficult with my two children 'cause I have to make sure they go to day care. And without a voucher, you're looking at 6-, $700 in day care a week.

WAMSLEY: She says the pandemic has erased the life she knew before, when she could take care of others instead of just scraping by. But there are glimmers of hope. The blood clots she had have gone away, so she can get vaccinated and look for better-paying health care work. Until then, she says, her kids are what keep her going.

MELISSA: They wake up every day and look at me like, OK, let's go. They're happy, and they help make me happy. They motivate me.

WAMSLEY: And soon, she hopes, they'll all return to some measure of stability.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News.

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