How The Pandemic Is Widening The Racial Wealth Gap
Joeller Stanton used to be an assistant teacher at a private school in Baltimore and made about $30,000 a year. In mid-March, when the pandemic was just starting, her school closed for what was supposed to be two weeks. "Up to that point, we were under the impression that it wasn't that serious, that everything was going to be OK," Stanton recalls.
But as schools in Maryland switched to virtual learning indefinitely, Stanton was let go from her job. She received her last paycheck in March. "I had about $300 savings that was basically gone by the end of March," she says.
She says she applied for unemployment but was denied initially. And by April, she had no money to pay for rent and utilities, and was struggling to put food on the table for her two children.
Stanton, who is Black, is caught up in a huge wave of economic stress hitting Americans, especially people of color.
Sixty percent of Black households are facing serious financial problems since the pandemic began, according to a national poll released this week by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That includes 41% who say they've used up most or all their savings, while an additional 10% had no savings before the outbreak.
Latinos and Native Americans are also disproportionately affected by the pandemic's economic impact. Seventy-two percent of Latino and 55% of Native American respondents say their households are facing serious financial problems, compared with 36% of whites.
"The thing that immediately struck me was how large the gap was by race for the people who said they were facing serious problems," says Valerie Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute.
The pandemic's disproportionate financial impact on communities of color reflects — and is worsening — existing racial disparities in wealth, she adds.
Struggles with income, housing, food
"The three groups that are being just ravaged by this epidemic are reporting unbelievable problems of just trying to cope with their day-to-day lives," says Robert Blendon, professor emeritus of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who oversaw the poll.
Thirty-two percent of Latino and 28% of Black respondents say they're having problems paying rent or mortgages. About a third of respondents in both groups were struggling to pay credit cards or other loans. And 26% of Latino and Native American respondents say they struggle to afford food, while 22% of Black respondents do.
Among households that reported they lost income, survival is even more of a challenge. For Black respondents, 40% say they're struggling to pay rent or mortgage, and 43% say they're having trouble paying utilities. For Latino households that lost income, 46% say they're struggling to pay mortgage or rent. About a third of both Black and Latino respondents who lost household income said they're struggling to pay for food.
The fact that many minority groups are also experiencing higher rates of coronavirus infections makes it even harder for them to cope financially, Blendon adds.
"You have people who don't have savings, they can't pay bills," he says. "And then you're going to tell them, 'Well, somebody in the household tested positive, nobody can go work.' How are they going to keep their lives going?"
Stanton's sister, who works for the city government, got COVID-19 earlier this year and had to isolate in her basement. "She had a cough, and she couldn't eat because her taste buds were completely gone," Stanton says. "I would cook meals, and I would take it to the basement, put it down on the floor for her."
Luckily, she says, no one else in the family — including her 82-year-old mother and her 7-year-old son, who has asthma — got infected.
But Stanton says she has lost a sister-in-law to the disease and had a friend in coma for six weeks on a ventilator. She knows of many others in her community who have died.
And most of her co-workers and friends are out of work.
Worsening existing disparities
Even during the economic recovery of recent years, minority groups were lagging behind, says Wilson of the Economic Policy Institute. "There were significant racial disparities in wages, significant racial disparities in unemployment, significant racial disparities in the kinds of jobs people held."
Black, Latino and Native American workers were more likely to have jobs that were lost during the pandemic, Wilson says. A Harvard University analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's Pulse Survey, released in July, found that 58% of Latino and 53% of Black households experienced loss in earnings early in the pandemic. Wilson's own research has shown that Latino workers have been particularly affected by job losses during the pandemic.
Wilson adds that people in these groups are also more likely to have jobs that didn't allow them to work from the safety of their homes, therefore putting them more at risk of getting infected. And they're also less likely to have substantial savings. As a result, it makes it harder for them to weather times of economic downturn, she says.
Wilson says she worries that the pandemic is worsening racial disparities.
"We're going to see coming out of this pandemic an expansion of the racial wealth gap," she says. "We saw the same kind of thing in the Great Recession in 2007-2008 — in particular then with the extensive foreclosures in communities of color and the loss of housing wealth."
"You just pray"
The pandemic forced Stanton to give up her rental home back in April. But she says she was fortunate not to end up homeless, thanks to her sister.
"My sister helped me get a storage unit," Stanton says. "I moved my furniture into a storage unit. And I moved in with my sister, me and my two kids — my 11-year-old daughter and my 7-year-old son."
She is grateful to have a roof over her head, but money, she says, is still tight.
She now gets $280 a week from the state of Maryland as unemployment, but it doesn't go far.
"The first thing I buy is any personal hygiene items me or my kids need," she says. She buys food, above what food stamps get her; she pays her phone bill and covers her sister's utility bills. "That's my only way of telling her, 'Thank you,' to show her that I appreciate what she's doing."
What little she has left, she buys a treat or two for her children, who have mostly been stuck indoors since the pandemic began: "Just trying to keep them happy," she says.
But she's far from happy herself. She hasn't been able to find a new job because of the nature of remote learning. "They don't need an assistant right now because the kids are not physically in the building," she says.
And even if she did find a job, she worries she'd have to use pay to cover child care. Her kids are now also learning virtually from home and need constant supervision.
Stanton says the only way she copes with her daily struggles is through faith. "A lot of prayer and a lot of patience," she says. "I try not to let things bother me because I don't want to become depressed. So, you know, you just pray. I hope this is all over soon."
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