While no one would argue that COVID-19 isn’t affecting all American families economically, it’s impossible not to acknowledge how it’s hitting Black families harder. And not only is the economic impact of the virus more forceful, but the fall is also farther and the climb back more difficult than for other groups.
We are all at Risk
As I watched Congress debate the extra $600 unemployment benefit over the past month, I was dumbfounded at where we are as a country. A few hundred dollars isn’t enough to stem the tide of economic devastation that’s entangling families, and the situation doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon. On August 8, President Trump signed executive orders intending to provide assistance by deferring payroll taxes and federal student loan payments, directing some housing officials to consider banning evictions, and allocating a $400 unemployment benefit that will only go into effect if supported by state funding. Many have raised doubts about the effectiveness of these efforts and for good reason.
I’ve witnessed the ineffectiveness of the CARES Act from the start. Because my aunt’s income breaks the poverty line, there’s no help for her even though her hours have been severely reduced because of COVID-19. My mother’s unemployment check was cut to less than $200 per week, yet the mortgage is still $1200. I’ll let you do the math. How is a lack of assistance supposed to “motivate” her? She’s spent more than 15 years working as a community college teacher for special needs adults; there’s virtually no part of that job that can be done from home. In addition to economic worries, there are also health concerns that come with potential exposure to COVID-19 at work that, again, hit the Black community harder. This leaves me as the one bearing most of the weight of my immediate and extended family’s economic needs. And it’s not just my aunt or my mother who’s wrestling with the aftermath of COVID-19 job loss; it’s Black families in general.
These Aren’t New Problems
Low paying and service occupations already have a higher proportion of Black workers. Everyday stressors that go along with it, like poverty and insecurity of food and housing, affect not only adult workers but children in the household, too. Add racial volatility to the mix, and everyone in the family is subject to the kind of added anxiety that can contribute to long-term health concerns.
“In times of financial difficulty, Blacks have fewer kin who are able to provide a financial cushion that could protect against economic hardship, and they are more likely to have family members who need financial support,” said Sung S. Park of Harvard University, who conducted a study on the persistence of multigenerational socioeconomic disadvantages.
But COVID Makes Everything Harder
Though credit card debt, in general, has declined steeply since the onset of the coronavirus, many low-income Black and Hispanic families are relying on credit cards as available, as well as pulling funds from retirement assets to handle day-to-day expenses, according to The Urban Institute. And while that might get them through the economic downturn now, it also sets them farther back when it comes to economic recovery. This demographic is already starting farther behind other groups, and it will take them longer to catch up, assuming that catching up is possible, as many jobs won’t restore workers’ full hours and unemployment benefits lapsed in July.
And it’s not just economically that Black families are struggling. Black children, even before COVID-19, were more likely to be at an educational and technological disadvantage. Now that so much learning has shifted toward virtual models, Black families are suddenly faced with the need to ensure reliable Internet service, too, along with academic support. Where kids once may have been able to use the library for Internet access and homework assistance, those avenues are either eliminated or strongly curtailed.
There is Hope
Survival comes from public policy initiatives like those suggested by The Urban Institute, including strengthening pay and protections for workers; a federal jobs program to provide employment; reduced housing insecurity through rent stabilization, forbearance, and repayment extensions, and access to refinancing programs; economic assistance programs for families who’ve lost someone to COVID-19. Other meaningful measures may include supporting education access and programs while dismantling institutional racism.
The time for action is now. Black families’ wealth is only a small fraction of the wealth held by white families, according to data collected by the Federal Reserve, and studies suggest that while children in white families may overcome poor economic roots, children in Black families typically won’t.
While advocating for more equitable tax reform can be part of the solution, steps we can take today include improving our own financial health, including increasing savings where possible and having candid conversations with our families and loved ones about money. If my aunt and my mother hadn’t been upfront about their financial situations, I wouldn’t know their struggles, and I wouldn’t be able to help brainstorm potential solutions. We must be creative in our thinking in problem-solving for now, like considering combining households, and in the longterm, like embracing estate planning to preserve assets in Black families, regardless of our current thinking about how wealthy we are or aren’t.
While American culture is typically distinguished by its individualism, that kind of thinking may actually be hurting Black families. To survive and thrive, we need to communicate and strengthen our family ties, looking out for each other and in the process, ourselves.