'My Bank Account Has $4': Pandemic Has Left Millions Of Livelihoods In Limbo

Dec 21, 2020
Originally published on December 29, 2020 4:22 pm

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

She'd spent about five years building her dog-walking and pet-sitting business into a profitable venture in Asheville, N.C.

"My whole life had been entirely where I wanted it to be at that point," she recalls.

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

"For the first time in my life, I had a credit score that I could have finally bought a home with," she says, a dream she'd had her entire adult life.

Rayne is in her late 30s, and in a good week, she was bringing in about $600. She had some savings and enough for a house payment.

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

Nine months into the pandemic, her business has basically evaporated. Instead of looking forward to buying a house, she's now dodging calls from bill collectors.

Rayne's story is playing out across the U.S. in the pandemic-induced downturn that has walloped working-class people. More than 10 million people are out of jobs, and some of the hardest-hit industries are also among the lowest paying, including retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism.

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Lilli Rayne's dog-walking and pet-sitting business in Asheville, N.C., has basically evaporated.
Lilli Rayne

"A lot of these jobs [are] working-class, blue-collar jobs. And the loss of these types of jobs has been devastating," says Michelle Holder, an economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

There are the lost wages. But losses beget further losses and the devastation compounds, Holder explains.

"For people who lose their jobs, they are at risk of losing their homes. They're at risk for food insecurity," she says. "If they have children, their children are at risk for the same things."

More than 50 million people in the U.S. will have experienced food insecurity by the end of 2020, an increase of more than 13 million from 2018, according to Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks.

Rayne has woven together a safety net since her business fell apart. She receives $192 a month in SNAP benefits to buy groceries. She also relies on the $500 in Social Security survivor benefits she began to receive after her father's death before the pandemic. Her mom pays her phone bill.

"I don't like relying on my mother. She makes very limited income herself," Rayne says. "I'm an adult. Thirty-nine years old. I should be able to pay my phone bill."

But Rayne says that her safety net is fraying. She has maxed out several credit cards and has started to take out payday loans to cover bills. She fears some of the holes in her safety net have grown big enough to fall through.

"My bank account has $4 in it right now," Rayne says. "I would love the people in Washington who have decided not to give us more stimulus money to see what it's really like to live like this."

Early in the pandemic, the federal government stepped in with a menu of aid programs, including an extra $600 per week of unemployment benefits, benefits for self-employed people who had lost work and one-time relief checks of up to $1,200 for individuals.

"The [government] stepped up and stepped in to assist people in America in getting through," says Holder. "I think that fiscal policy and public policy [were] really working at that juncture, but as time wore on and the pandemic wore on, that was not sustained."

Nearly 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. The researchers attribute that sharp increase to the expiration of federal aid programs created to help those in need.

Congress now appears to be on the cusp of passing a $900 billion relief package with help for people who have lost their jobs, a $600 check for individuals making less than $75,000 a year and aid for small businesses. But the help would come after many months of inaction — months that were punctuated by mass layoffs and businesses going belly up.

In March, the last time Congress came together to pass a major package of pandemic support, airlines were thrown a $58 billion lifeline.

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

"I was so excited about this year, working and just growing," she recalls. "All these plans of getting to my 10th year at Delta."

But the infusion of federal money went only so far, while air travel plummeted. In August, Doakes, 33, took a separation package from the company.

She then joined millions of other people looking for work. But Doakes also has health problems — she has lupus, an autoimmune disease — that have hindered her job search.

"So it really has been a challenge," she says.

Doakes considers herself a positive person but admits that she's struggling right now. On top of leaving her job and the challenges of lupus, she also has COVID-19 now.

"I'm grateful because I'm still alive," she says.

These days, most people do recover from the disease. And the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations is being administered.

But in a news conference last week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reminded Congress that the pandemic is far from over.

"We know there's need out there," he said. "Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it would be bad to see people losing their business — their life's work in many cases or even generations' worth of work — because they couldn't last another few months."

Nevertheless, Powell said, the vaccine is cause for cautious optimism: "Sometime in the middle of next year, you will see people feeling comfortable going out and engaging in a broader range of activities."

But given that the downturn has been uneven — disproportionately affecting working-class and lower-income people — there is reason to believe the recovery will be uneven as well, according to Holder, the economist.

For instance, she notes that men, and especially men of color, make up a large share of cab drivers and public transit workers.

"But this pandemic has shown us that we can work from home," she says. "And people will not necessarily need to move around outside as much as they used to. That's going to have direct implications for men of color who are overrepresented in the transportation sector."

"I do think that there are going to be some jobs that just will not return," Holder says.

Rayne, the dog walker and pet sitter in North Carolina, hopes that isn't the case for her.

"For the first time in my life, I was running my own business. And I was not only running my own business — I was really good at it," she says. "It's pet sitting. It's fun. It's casual. But to me, it's my career."

For now, her career and livelihood are on hold until the pandemic lets up and the U.S. can let its collective guard down.

: 12/22/20

An earlier version of the audio and Web stories said that former Delta Air Lines employee Jasmine Doakes was laid off from her job. In fact, she took a separation package from the company when she left in August.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


As a new year looms and a traumatic one comes to an end, the work of processing the ongoing pandemic has just begun - collectively grieving what is gone while trying to move forward. And so we are looking at what we've lost in 2020. Today's installment - livelihoods.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I really lost everything during this pandemic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My business has dried up in the last few months.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've lost the life I was very proud of having built.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't have the money from the gigs we were playing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Things are just bottom up. I've drained my savings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: After a couple months, my landlords were as lenient as they could be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I had a credit score that I could have eventually finally bought a home with. And now, my credit score's back damaged so heavily that it will not be repaired for a very long time to come.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm making half of what I did last year. I've lost my car. I've lost my apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And it just wasn't enough at the end of the day. And they gave me an eviction notice.

KELLY: In a moment, an economist explains how an uneven downturn will likely lead to an uneven recovery. But first, NPR's Lauren Hodges introduces us to a woman who lost her financial security this year and how a job loss leads to so many other losses.

LAUREN HODGES, BYLINE: An overwhelming number of people are unemployed right now - more than 10 million - which means many Americans are feeling helpless right in the middle of what has become the worst surge of the coronavirus pandemic.

JASMINE DOAKES: I'm not doing too well right now because I'm actually battling COVID and pneumonia.

HODGES: That's Jasmine Doakes, from Cincinnati, Ohio. She lost her job as a customer service representative for Delta in August.

DOAKES: It really sucked because I was so excited about this year and working and just growing there. And all these plans of getting to my 10th year at Delta.

HODGES: The job and its benefits are a big loss to Doakes, especially since COVID and pneumonia aren't her only health worries. She's battling lupus. And after losing her health insurance, she can't afford the treatments anymore.

DOAKES: It's been pretty difficult because last year, I had to go through some chemo treatments for lupus, and so I'd been off a lot on medical leave.

HODGES: That medical leave turned out to be a huge obstacle when it came to applying for unemployment.

DOAKES: I wasn't approved because they said, well, you didn't work enough last year (laughter).

HODGES: Doakes is looking for work, but she can't leave the house in her condition, so her bills are piling up. New data from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that nearly 8 million people had slipped into poverty since this summer. The academics behind the data blame the jobless situation and a safety net with holes big enough for many to fall through. Doakes is looking at her own safety net now. She says she'll probably have to move back home with family soon.

DOAKES: But I'm grateful because I'm still alive.

HODGES: And during a pandemic that's claimed more than 300,000 lives, that's something Doakes knows she can't take for granted.

KELLY: That was NPR's Lauren Hodges. Now, to learn more about who is out of work and the ripple effect that follows when a job is lost, we reached out to Michelle Holder, associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. Holder told me that industries like retail, leisure and hospitality have been disproportionately gutted by the pandemic.

MICHELLE HOLDER: These do tend to be lower-wage jobs, customer service-oriented jobs. And because the customers weren't there, you know, these workers really were not needed to the same degree that they were before the pandemic. But a lot of these jobs are working-class, blue-collar jobs. And the loss of these types of jobs really has been devastating, I'd say, for middle America.

KELLY: Well, let's dig in on that and this central question of what we have lost. When we talk about a person losing their job, there are so many ripple effects from that. I'm thinking of savings. I'm thinking of health care, in some cases. I'm thinking of your credit score.

HOLDER: There are so many ramifications. And so, you know, for people who lose their jobs, they are at risk of losing their homes, food insecurity. There are plenty of families that have lost everything because they're not able to pay for unexpected health care issues. So losing a job is the very beginning of a kind of domino effect, making that individual or that family much more vulnerable to just income loss.

KELLY: And is there any data, any numbers, we can put on the ripple effects beyond just on an individual and the crisis - that losing your job, your livelihood can represent when you look at the effects on a family, on a neighborhood, on a community of somebody who was anchoring that and bringing in income suddenly no longer being able to do so?

HOLDER: Right. I live in Manhattan. I actually live in Harlem. And during the early part of the pandemic, the atmosphere in Harlem, which has - still has a sizable Black community, the atmosphere was really tense.

KELLY: What do you mean? People just seemed scared?

HOLDER: They seemed scared and upset - angry.

KELLY: Yeah.

HOLDER: Yeah. There is research on the effect of job loss on people of color. And because people of color in this country have fewer resources to fall back on than, you know, white families or white individuals, a job loss has a harsher impact than it does on white families and white communities. Not that job loss is not devastating for anyone. But because there are wealth gaps and income gaps between Blacks and whites in the U.S., suffering a job loss - there is a much more anxious implication for Black families and Black communities.

KELLY: If I'm hearing you right, Michelle Holder, you're talking about the loss of a job - which, if it happens to any of us, is devastating - that transcends race. But for communities of color that perhaps were already closer to the edge, that had less of a safety net, the impact is just more profound.

HOLDER: It is. It's more profound in a material sense and in a psychological sense, you know, this real kind of helpless fear of what's going to happen next and are we going to weather this storm.

KELLY: So bottom line, are you optimistic as you look ahead to 2021 and the job scene?

HOLDER: Wow; that's a rough question to answer. I'll try to answer it, but I will qualify my answer by saying I'm either a pessimistic optimist or an optimistic pessimist.

KELLY: (Laughter) Meaning who the heck knows.

HOLDER: (Laughter) Right. Right. But mostly, I'm a realist. I do believe that the recovery, as tepid as it is, will continue. But I don't think by next year we should expect all of the major indicators, such as the unemployment rate and the poverty rate, to really get down to pre-pandemic levels.

KELLY: So a long road ahead - Michelle Holder, thank you.

HOLDER: Thank you.

KELLY: Michelle Holder is associate professor of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York.

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