Coronavirus Drained Black, Latino, and Native Americans' Savings Way More Than White People's

White and non-white households reported similar disparities in answers about paying off debt, struggles to pay rent or mortgage bills, serious problems affording food, trouble buying medical care, and more.
September 16, 2020, 11:15am
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

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More than 40% of Black, Latino, and Native American households reported in a new poll that they ran through their savings to get by during the COVID-19 pandemic. The numbers underscore a dire economic reality that might exacerbate the country’s stark racial wealth disparities.

An NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll released Wednesday revealed that 46% of Latino households had reported using up all or most of their savings at some point during the pandemic, while 41% of Black and Native American households said the same. Twenty-five percent of white households admitted they’d drained or nearly drained their savings.

Questions about paying off debt, struggles to pay rent or mortgage bills, serious problems affording food, trouble buying medical care, and more yielded similar results: Black, Native American, and Latino households fared worse than their white counterparts.

Overall, 72% of Latino respondents, 60% of Black respondents, and 55% of Native American respondents reported some sort of serious financial problem, compared to 36% of white households.

“In particular, these findings show these racial/ethnic minority households may have limited financial resources to weather long-term financial and health effects of the coronavirus outbreak, as large shares have already depleted their savings and are having major problems paying for basic costs of living, including food, rent, and medical care,” the pollsters wrote.

The poll included a nationally representative sample of 3,454 adults who were interviewed online and via phone about a series of financial and health problems from July 1 to Aug 3.

The results only add to the heap of bleak data about how households of color have fared in the midst of a pandemic and its resulting recession. To start, Black, Latino, and Native American people have already experienced disproportionately higher rates of hospitalization and death from the virus itself. And the economic circumstances have hit them hard, too. In August, the unemployment rate for white workers was at 7.3%; it was 13% and 10.5% for Black and Latino workers, respectively.

The consequences of those disparities could be brutal for some families. Thirty-two percent of Latino households reported “serious problems” paying their rents or mortgages in Wednesday’s poll — putting them at risk of eviction or foreclosure — compared to 28% and 25% of Black and Native American respondents, respectively. Only 15% of white respondents reported that they had been in the same position.

Wednesday’s poll also noted that 15% of Latino households and 10% of Black households said they didn’t have any household savings to begin with when the pandemic broke out, compared to 9% of white and Native American households.

Activists and experts have warned that the pandemic’s financial turmoil could have long-lasting implications for households of color, especially since Congress has been unable to compromise on another large stimulus package, forcing some out-of-work Americans to collect well under $100 a week in unemployment benefits with no relief in sight.

“Those calling for the scaling back, for the elimination of unemployment insurance, are missing the reality, which is in this country, the burden of the recession is not equally distributed,” Michelle Holder, an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College, told Vox in a recent report.

People of color, and Black people in particular, are said to be the “first fired, last hired” when an economy deteriorates and then recovers, which triggers long gaps in their employment and their ability to earn a decent living.

In the Great Recession, for example, employment rates among Black “prime-age” workers decreased two months sooner and 15 months longer when compared to employment rates for white people. That unemployment, combined with the foreclosure crisis, led to Black Americans losing over half their accumulated wealth and an unequal rate of homeownership that’s only worsened since the recession. 

More than 10 years later, households of color are yet again careening toward collapse. The gains they made when Black and Latino unemployment fell to historic lows last year have been largely erased, and some now find themselves unable to afford the most basic necessities.

In Wednesday’s survey, 26% of Latino and Native American households reported that they had seriously struggled to pay for food since the pandemic. The same was true for 22% of Black households, and 12% of white households.

Editor’s note 9/16/2020: This story has been updated to clarify that other questions in the poll yielded similar disparities between races.

Cover: A mother holds onto her one-year-old son's hands at her parent's home in Laurel, Miss., where they now live, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. Her weekly unemployment allotment is under $100, effectively eliminating her chance at receiving the $300 weekly supplement proposed by President Trump's executive order. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)