Jonathan Eta had managed to keep his head above water after he lost his job as an auto detailer in Southern California at the start of the pandemic. But last month, the emergency unemployment benefits he relied on expired.
"Basically, now we're just out on our own, you know?" he says.
Eta, who was born in Honduras, lives in the San Fernando Valley, where he's a single father to his three school-aged children. The financial strain he'd staved off for 17 months has arrived. He's now three months behind on rent for the one-bedroom apartment where the four of them live, and he's behind on his credit cards and electric bill, too.
"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," Eta says.
He's far from the only one feeling that pressure. Thirty-eight percent of households across the U.S. 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. And among Black and Latino households, more than 55% reported serious financial problems. That's compared with 29% of white households.
Impact of the racial wealth gap: "I've got to start all over"
For Eta, the financial strain has made it hard to sleep, and it has stymied his hopes of moving his family to a bigger place.
"I had some kind of progress going on. Now that's pretty much over with, so I've 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," he says. The little savings he had are now gone.
That lack of savings is a major factor in the unequal financial toll of the pandemic.
About 19% of all households say they lost all their savings during the COVID-19 outbreak, and have none to fall back on. Among Black households, the number is higher: 31% reported losing all their savings. And among Latino and Native American families, more than more than a quarter of households report having depleted their savings.
"The racial wealth gap is real, and one of its most basic manifestations is not having liquid assets," says William Spriggs, 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.
"That's all gone away," he says. "So that is, I think, the number one 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."
"It is incredibly hard"
Melissa is a single mom in Brooklyn. She's asked we only use her first name because she's ashamed of being unable to provide for her children and doesn't want it widely known how much she is struggling.
"This has been hell," she says. "I'm trying to survive without a job, without assistance, with two young children. It is incredibly hard."
When the pandemic started, she was working as a home health aide. But because she was caring for her kids, checking in on her mother in a nursing home, and looking after her aunts and uncles, she didn't want to work directly with COVID-19 patients.
"And they didn't want to hear that, so I was forced to take a leave," she says.
Around the same time, her wallet was stolen, and with it, the state ID and social security card she needed to apply for various government assistance. Getting replacements for those documents has been slow, with government offices backed up during the pandemic.
When she became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year, Melissa wasn't able to get the protective shot for underlying health reasons. But that's raised her ongoing vulnerability to the coronavirus.
Without income, she's leaned on extended family, gone to food pantries and made the most of her supply of canned goods while she looks for a job.
"I've applied at Target, Kmart, H&M — everything. I've applied everywhere. And you know, it is difficult with my two children because I still have to make sure they go to daycare. And without a voucher ... you're looking at six, seven hundred dollars in daycare a week."
Glimmers of hope
She says the pandemic has erased the life she knew before — when she could take care of others in her extended family, instead of just scraping by herself.
But there are glimmers of hope: That underlying health issue has at last healed, her doctors now tell her, so she should be able to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, and be able to look for a better-paying job in health care.
Until then, she says, her kids are what keep her going. "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."
And soon, she hopes, the whole family can return to some measure of stability.