Poll: Financial distress worsens for Americans during delta rise: Gunshots

The Americans are way behind.

Unpaid rent and evictions are looming. Two-thirds of parents say their children have fallen behind in school. And one in five households say someone at home has been unable to get medical attention for a serious illness.

These are some of the key takeaways from a new national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

Despite billions of dollars in financial aid from federal and state governments, “what we have here is a lot of people are still one step away from financial drowning,” says Robert Blendon, professor emeritus of politics at health and political analysis at Harvard Chan School.

Thirty-eight percent of households across the country say they have faced serious financial problems in the past few months. Among Latino, Black and Native American households, more than 50% had serious financial problems, compared to 29% of white households. This disparity is echoed in many other polls, with minority families bearing a disproportionate share of the socio-economic impact of pandemics.

Brittany Mitchell’s family are among those struggling. She lives in Gaston, South Carolina, and is a full-time cake decorator at local grocery store Food Lion. Her husband is a butcher. They were weathering the pandemic quite well, until her husband lost his job.

“There were two good months where we really couldn’t pay the rent, we couldn’t afford the electricity, we couldn’t afford our internet,” she says. “We were basically borrowing from friends and family just to make ends meet.”

Mitchell was able to register for housing assistance and she says her landlord was very understanding. Her husband has found a new job, but now they are behind on utility and car payments.

“We always fight really hard just to get through,” she says.

A sharp income divide

The poll showed a sharp income divide, with 59% of people with annual incomes below $50,000 reporting serious financial problems in recent months, compared with 18% of households with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

All this, despite the fact that about two-thirds of households report having received financial assistance from the government in recent months during the delta variant surge.

It appears that funding for COVID-19 relief bills, Blendon says, “hasn’t provided a floor to protect moderate and low-income people.”

Additionally, Americans are draining their savings accounts: 19% of US households report losing all of their savings during the COVID-19 crisis and currently have no savings to fall back on.

The financial blow is more brutal for black households: 31% said they had lost all their savings. And among Latino and Native American families, just over a quarter of households report having exhausted their savings.

There was also a sharp income divide, with those earning less than $50,000 a year much more likely to have lost all their savings than the better-off.

“You have a group of people who are going through life changes without any savings,” Blendon says.

Tenants struggle to pay

From this financial distress, other problems develop. By the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction ban expired in late August, 27% of renters nationwide reported serious problems paying their rent in the past few months.

Our survey took an in-depth look at the four largest US cities and found Houston’s rent crisis was by far the worst, with 53% of Houston renters reporting difficulty paying their rent.

Luz Maria Rodriguez is a struggling Houston tenant.

“Everything was fine until the pandemic hit,” she says. “It was like my world had changed overnight.”

She is 67 and semi-retired. Last summer, her brother died of a stroke – and she ended up having to move into a new apartment with her son. With expensive car repairs and moving costs, the new rent payment was difficult to make on her son’s salary and social security contributions.

She fell behind on utilities and her credit cards and ended up going to food banks for the first time in her life.

“There were nights I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “It was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles.”

A decline in mental and social well-being

The pressure exerted by the pandemic on the daily lives of Americans is having serious repercussions. Many Americans struggle with anxiety and insomnia: Half of households report that at least one person in the home has had serious depression, anxiety, stress or sleep problems in the past last months.

Then there is the now familiar story of the children and the school. More than two-thirds of U.S. households with children in kindergarten through 12th grade last said their children had fallen behind in their learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 36% who said the children were “very behind”.

Will Walsh and his wife in Radford, Va., sent their son to eighth grade last year. He says he and his wife just had a hard time getting to grips with the teaching. “And for that reason, I think he fell behind,” he says.

This year, her son is back in class. “We were worried,” he says. “But he’s about to finish his first semester and he’s an A, B student – so maybe my wife and I did better than expected.”

In the survey, most parents were unconvinced that their children would bounce back quickly. Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, 70% of households whose children fell behind in the previous school year believe it will be difficult for the children in their household to catch up on education losses from the school year former.

Our survey also looked at other areas of decline in social well-being. The most striking finding: A quarter of Asian American adults say that in the past few months they have feared that someone would threaten or physically attack them or members of their household because of their race/ethnicity. The proportion of Native Americans fearing threats and attacks was 22%, and for black households, it was 21%.

To put this into context, the most recent report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed that hate crimes in the United States are on the rise, rising 6% in 2020 from 2019 levels.

Harry Ting immigrated from Taiwan when he was 11 and is a naturalized citizen, who personally identifies as “very American”, he says.

He lives outside of Los Angeles. In March 2020, his car was locked while he was at a Best Buy.

“That incident – it was the very first time I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have kids, I have family, my wife is from Taiwan and I’m scared for them,'” he said.

This fear has not gone away. Recently, while planning a trip to Utah with his wife, children and in-laws for Labor Day, he found himself worrying and talking to his family before their departure.

“I don’t want us to communicate in really loud Chinese and laugh, because I don’t want unwanted attention,” he told them. “I never felt like I had to do this until this year.”

In health and healthcare, the protracted pandemic has also aggravated the problems of people with serious health conditions. Our survey found that of 1 in 5 households reporting a problem getting care for a serious health condition, 76% said it resulted in a negative health consequence.

Health insurance was a problem for some of these people, but certainly not for all: among households unable to seek health care when they needed it, 78% said they had health insurance, while 22% said they had no health insurance. ‘Health Insurance.

Harvard’s Blendon says the number of people delaying care “was much higher than expected,” largely due to the delta variant.

“It’s the United States,” Blendon told Boise State Public Radio reporter James Dawson. “You don’t expect people with serious illnesses to say they can’t be seen for care.”

This poll was conducted from August 2 to September 7, 2021 among a probability-based, address-based, nationally representative sample of 3,616 U.S. adults ages 18 or older. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese according to respondents’ preferences. The margin of error at the 95% confidence interval is ± 3.4 percentage points for the national results. Read the survey results in detail here.

NPR reporters will dive deeper into these and other results from our poll over the coming weeks.

Sarah J. Greer