Over the past three months, every one of us has been impacted by the health, economic, and social crisis that our nation is facing. But it is clear that those living in poverty and individuals working low-wage jobs have been disproportionately affected during this challenging time.
Low-income workers are much more likely to be employed in jobs requiring physical labor with a limited ability to work from home. Retail and entertainment venues, two of the major industries forced to reduce operations most severely during stay-at-home orders, are two of the greatest employers of low-wage workers. As a result, many low-income families have had to grapple with the loss of jobs, reduced hours, or increased exposure to the virus.
Other industries hardest hit by job losses include hospitality, health services, manufacturing, and construction – all of which employ large numbers of low-wage laborers.
According to The Urban Institute, a national nonprofit research organization, although all ethnic groups have been impacted by COVID-19, “the Latinx unemployment rate is the highest of all racial groups, at 18.9%” as of April 2020.
This is first time since 1973 that Latinx workers have been hit harder than any other group. The unemployment rate for blacks is now 16.7%, 14.5% for Asians, and 14.2% for whites.
With a limited ability to continue working through stay-at-home orders, low-income workers have been faced with two not-so-good scenarios.
First, in order to maintain health, they have either been forced to stay home or could have chosen to stay home and not report to work, giving up the income needed to support their families. Alternately, if their place of business continued to operate, showing up for work could mean increased exposure to COVID and greater risk for their household.
A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute stated that “African Americans have disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates and are more likely to live in areas experiencing outbreaks.” Deaths of blacks from COVID through May 13, 2020 represent 22.4% of all deaths while black Americans represent just 12.5% of the population.
And the recent unjust death of George Floyd has only served to amplify stress levels and place an additional burden on the black community as decades of inequality and injustice have been thrust to the forefront of America’s attention.
Not only are low-income workers more susceptible to the short-term impacts of this time, but they also typically have fewer assets and savings to help weather an economic downturn or a personal health crisis. With fewer economic resources and expensive or limited insurance, they may also delay or avoid seeking medical treatment, which can further erode one’s ability to overcome illness.
Food costs have also grown recently as grocery prices are increasing and families are spending more to feed children who would usually eat meals at school.
Requests for food assistance to the 24/7 community resource phone line 211 skyrocketed between February and April, according to Gary Madden, director of 211 San Bernardino County.
“Calls for food went through the roof,” he stated, “far outstripping calls for housing and utilities for the first time ever.” At the peak, food requests were 400% of those made in January. When looking at requests for assistance by race, data shows a consistently higher number of requests among black and Hispanic callers than other ethnicities.
To help low-income individuals and families recover from this period, continued support from neighbors, nonprofits, employers and government will be crucial. Focusing on a combination of basic needs support and helping families rebuild their financial stability through employment will be necessary. And helping low-income youth to catch up and stay on track academically will be essential as we prepare our next generation for independence.
Gregory Bradbard is an advocate for breaking the cycle of poverty as president of the SoCal-based Hope Through Housing Foundation. Read more at www.HTHF.org.
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