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NPR Health

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

A woman recovering from fever linked to COVID-19 checks medications in her home in Mineola, N.Y., this spring.
A woman recovering from fever linked to COVID-19 checks medications in her home in Mineola, N.Y., this spring.

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 data out this month reveal households that either have had someone with COVID-19 or include someone who has a disability or special needs are much more likely to also be hurting financially.

That was the case for a young mother named Elizabeth who was waiting for her kindergartener to get out of school in Smyrna, Tenn., when we spoke with her. Her family is still recovering from its bout with 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, working 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 poll, conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed around 3,500 respondents nationwide in July and early August and found that nearly half of American households faced lost jobs or pay cuts during the pandemic.

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But for households like Elizabeth's that have had a member fall ill with COVID-19, the share that have lost work jumps to nearly two-thirds — 64%. And 63% of those that have had a sick household member report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak.

Other key findings:

  • 54% of households with annual incomes below $100,000 report serious financial problems, compared with 20% of households with incomes over $100,000.
  • Of households that include someone who has a disability, 63% report facing serious financial hardship, and 37% report using up all or most of their savings.
  • 22% of households in which someone has been sick with COVID-19 have had trouble affording medical care; 9% of households that have had someone sick with the virus lost their health insurance during the pandemic, and 7% didn't have it even before the outbreak's start.
  • Health and wealth have always been intertwined in the United States. 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 the respondents to NPR's poll, is a mother with three boys and a foster daughter in Houston. She supports her family through her work for a temp agency, staffing big events for conventions and pro sports games.

    Those events 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 small financial cushion in the beginning, she says, even though her wages were just $14 an hour. "I had enough savings built up for about three months," she says. "That's pretty much gone."

    So far she has been rejected from receiving unemployment payments, partly related to having worked for multiple employers. And she never received the federal stimulus money she was eligible to get.

    "I was very upset about having to use savings," she says, "but I had to remind myself that I put this money away for times like this."

    Many other respondents didn't have savings to start with, says Harvard University researcher Mary Gorski Findling, who helped analyze the results.

    'We're talking about more than half of these households having nothing to fall back on," she says. "And it's scary."

    It's becoming clear that COVID-19 is not the great equalizer that some claimed in the early days.

    Kinika Young, an attorney with the Tennessee Justice Center, helps clients fight for health care and food stamp benefits. She has seen the inequity up close.

    "Initially, people said this pandemic had us all in the same boat," she says. "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 on to driftwood.' "

    And for some families, it's all they can do to keep their heads above water.

    Selenesol Singleton's dad died last year. The 20-year-old in Burbank, Calif., then lost a job when the pandemic hit, and the film set where Singleton worked shut down. Singleton got sick, and tests for the coronavirus were in such short supply that the hospital said just to assume it was COVID-19, based on the symptoms.

    These days, Singleton is 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 that living paycheck to paycheck wouldn't cut it. Maybe more education and training, Singleton thought, would offer preparation for a better job. The young film industry worker decided it was time to start classes at a local community college rather than follow a dream to go to school in New York.

    Singleton is now a few weeks into the semester at Pasadena City College but is still not sure how even that tuition bill will get paid.

    Copyright 2020 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.