“My bank account has $ 4”: pandemic has left millions of livelihoods in limbo


More than 10 million people in the United States are out of work, and the hardest-hit industries are also among the lowest-paying, including retail, entertainment, hospitality, and tourism. Image: Sarah Gonzales for NPR

By the end of last year, the door to a dream had started to open for Lilli Rayne.

She had spent about five years turning her dog walking and pet sitting business into a profitable one in Asheville, North Carolina.

“My whole life had been entirely where I wanted her to be at that time,” she recalls.

As she built her business, Rayne also left behind her less than stellar credit history.

“For the first time in my life, I had a credit rating that I could finally have bought a house with,” she said, a dream she had had her entire adult life.

Rayne is in her thirties and in a good week she was making around $ 600. She had some savings and enough to pay for a house.

Then the coronavirus. Between the drop in the number of people traveling and the fact that so many people are working from home, the demand for dog walkers is almost nonexistent, says Rayne.

Nine months after the start of the pandemic, his business has all but evaporated. Instead of being anxious to buy a house, she now dodges calls from debt collectors.

Rayne’s story is unfolding across the United States in the pandemic-induced downturn that has rocked the working class. More … than 10 million people are unemployed, and some of the hardest hit industries are also among the lowest paid, including retail, entertainment, hospitality and tourism.

“A lot of these jobs [are] blue collar and blue collar jobs. And the loss of those types of jobs has been devastating, ”said Michelle Holder, professor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

There are lost wages. But the losses spawn more and the devastation compounds, Holder explains.

“For people who lose their jobs, they risk losing their homes. They are at risk of food insecurity, ”she said. “If they have children, their children risk the same things.”

Over 50 million people in the United States will have experienced food insecurity by the end of 2020, an increase of more than 13 million from 2018, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks.

Rayne has woven a safety net since his business collapsed. She receives $ 192 per month in SNAP benefits for grocery shopping. She is also relying on the $ 500 in Social Security survivor benefits she started receiving after her father died before the pandemic. Her mother pays her phone bill.

“I don’t like relying on my mom. She earns a very limited income herself,” says Rayne. “I’m an adult. I’m thirty-nine. I should be able to pay my phone bill.”

But Rayne says his safety net is unraveling. She exhausted several credit cards and began taking out payday loans to cover her bills. She worries that some of the holes in her safety net are big enough to fall out.

“My bank account is $ 4 right now,” says Rayne. “I wish the people in Washington who decided not to give us more stimulus money to see what it’s really like to live like this.”

At the onset of the pandemic, the federal government responded with a menu of assistance programs, including an additional $ 600 per week in unemployment benefits, benefits for self-employed workers who had lost their jobs, and one-time relief checks. up to $ 1,200 for individuals.

“The [government] stepped up and stepped in to help people in America move on, ”Holder says. “I think tax policy and public policy [were] was really working at this point, but with time and the pandemic it was not sustained. “

Almost 8 million people have fallen into poverty since the middle of the year, according to new data from researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. Researchers attribute the sharp increase to the expiration of federal aid programs created to help those in need.

Congress now appears to be on the verge of adopting a A $ 900 billion relief plan with help for people who have lost their jobs, a check for $ 600 for people earning less than $ 75,000 a year, and help for small businesses. But the help would come after many months of inaction – months punctuated by massive layoffs and corporate bankruptcies.

In March, the last time Congress met to adopt a large pandemic support package, the airlines received a lifeline of $ 58 billion.

That support likely helped keep people like Jasmine Doakes, Delta Air Lines customer service representative in Cincinnati, on the payroll.

“I was so excited about this year, to work and to grow,” she recalls. “All of these plans to get into my 10th year at Delta.”

But the infusion of federal money has only gone so far, as air travel crumbles. In August, Doakes, 33, took a severance package from the company.

She then joined millions of other people looking for work. But Doakes also has health issues – she suffers from lupus, an autoimmune disease – that have hampered her job search.

“So that was really a challenge,” she says.

Doakes considers herself a positive person but admits that she is struggling at the moment. In addition to quitting her job and the challenges of lupus, she also has COVID-19 now.

“I’m grateful because I’m still alive,” she says.

Most people are recovering from the disease these days. And the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations is administered.

But at a press conference last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell reminded Congress that the pandemic is far from over.

“We know there is a need there,” he said. “Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it would be a shame to see people lose their businesses – their life’s work in many cases or even the work of several generations – because they couldn’t last yet. some months. “

Nonetheless, said Powell, the vaccine is cause for cautious optimism: “By the middle of next year you will see people feeling comfortable going out and engaging in a wider range of activities. . “

But given that the slowdown has been uneven – disproportionately affecting working-class and low-income people – there is reason to believe the recovery will also be uneven, according to Holder, the economist.

For example, she notes that men, and especially men of color, make up a significant portion of taxi drivers and public transport workers.

“But this pandemic has shown us that we can work from home,” she says. “And people won’t necessarily need to travel outdoors as much as they used to. This will have direct implications for men of color who are overrepresented in the transportation industry.”

“I think there will be jobs that just won’t come back,” Holder said.

Rayne, the dog walker and pet sitter in North Carolina, hopes that is not the case for her.

“For the first time in my life, I was running my own business. And I wasn’t just running my own business, I was really good at it, ”she says. “It’s animal care. It’s fun. It’s laid back. But for me, it’s my career.”

Nine months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Lilli Rayne's dog walking and pet sitting business in Asheville, North Carolina, has all but evaporated.

Nine months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Lilli Rayne’s dog walking and pet sitting business in Asheville, North Carolina, has all but evaporated. Image: Lilli Rayne

For now, his career and livelihood are on hold until the pandemic ends and the United States can let down its collective guard.

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