NPR poll: The delta surge pushed Americans further behind in all walks of life

Oct 12, 2021
Originally published on October 13, 2021 7:12 pm

Americans have fallen way behind.

The rent's overdue and evictions are looming. Two-thirds of parents say their kids have fallen behind in school. And one in five households say someone in the home has been unable to get medical care for a serious condition.

These are some of the main takeaways from a new national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Despite billions of dollars in relief money from federal and state governments, "what we have here is a lot of people who are still one step from drowning financially," says Robert Blendon, emeritus professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School.

Thirty-eight percent of households across the nation report facing serious financial problems in the past few months. Among Latino, Black and Native American households, more than 50% had serious financial problems, while 29% of white households did. This disparity is echoed in many other poll findings, with the minority families bearing a disproportionate share of the pandemics' socio-economic impact.

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Brittany Mitchell's family is among those that are struggling. She lives in Gaston, S.C. and she's a full-time cake decorator at the local Food Lion grocery store — her husband is a butcher. They were weathering the pandemic well enough, until her husband lost his job.

"There was a good two months where we really couldn't pay rent, we couldn't pay electric, we couldn't pay for our internet," she says. "We were basically borrowing from friends and family members just to make ends meet."

Mitchell was able to enroll in rental assistance, and she says her landlord was very understanding. Her husband got a new job, but now they're behind on utility and car payments.

"We're still struggling real hard just to get through," she says.

A sharp income divide

The poll showed a sharp income divide, with 59% of those with annual incomes below $50,000 reporting serious financial problems in the past few months, compared with 18% of households with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

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All this, despite the fact that around two-thirds of households report that they have received financial assistance from the government in the past few months during the delta variant surge.

It appears that the funding from COVID-19 relief bills, Blendon says, "did not provide a floor to protect people who are of moderate and low incomes."

Add to that, Americans are draining their savings accounts: 19% of U.S. households report losing all of their savings during the COVID-19 crisis and currently having no savings to fall back on.

The financial blow is more stark for Black households: 31% reported losing all their savings. And among Latino and Native American families, just over a quarter of households report they depleted their savings.

There was also a clear income divide, with those making less than $50,000 a year being far more likely to have lost all their savings than the more affluent.

"You have a group of people who are facing changes in their life without any savings," Blendon says.

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Renters struggle with payments

From this financial distress, other problems grow. At the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction ban expired at the end of August, 27% of renters nationally reported serious problems paying their rent in the past few months.

Our poll looked in depth at the four largest U.S. cities and found that Houston's rent crisis was far and away the worst, with 53% of Houston renters reporting trouble paying rent.

One Houston renter who's been struggling is Luz Maria Rodriguez.

"Everything was fine until the pandemic hit," she says. "It was like my world turned upside down overnight."

She's 67 years old and semi-retired. Last summer, her brother died of a stroke — and she ended up needing to move into a new apartment with her son. With expensive car repairs and the costs of the move, the new rent payment has been tough to make on her son's salary and her social security payments.

She got behind on utilities and her credit cards and ended up going to food banks for the first time in her life.

"There were nights I couldn't sleep," she says. "It was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles."

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A decline in mental and social well-being

The strain that the pandemic put on Americans' day to day lives is having serious repercussions. A lot of Americans are struggling with anxiety and sleeplessness: Half of households report at least one person in the home has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months.

Then there's the by-now familiar story of kids and school. More than two-thirds of American households with children in K-12 last school year said their children fell behind in their learning because of the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 36% who said children "fell behind a lot."

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Will Walsh and his wife in Radford, Va. homeschooled their son in eighth grade last year. He says he and his wife just had trouble getting the hang of teaching. "And for that reason, I think he fell behind," he says.

This year, his son is back in the classroom. "We were worried," he says. "But he's about to finish up his first semester and he's an A, B student — so maybe me and my wife did better than we thought."

In the poll, most parents weren't confident their kids would quickly bounce back. Thinking about the upcoming school year, 70% of households whose children fell behind last school year believe it will be difficult for children in their household to catch up on education losses from last school year.

Our poll also looked at other areas of decline in social well-being. The stand-out finding: A quarter of Asian American adults say that in the past few months they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them or members of their household because of their race/ethnicity. The proportion of Native Americans fearing threats and attacks was 22%, and for Black households it was 21%.

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To put that into context, the most recent report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed hate crimes in the U.S. are on the rise, increasing 6% in 2020 over 2019 levels.

Harry Ting immigrated from Taiwan when he was 11 years old and he's a naturalized citizen, who personally identifies as "very American," he says.

He lives outside Los Angeles. In March 2020, his car was keyed while he was in a Best Buy.

"That incident – that was the very first time where I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I have kids, I have family, my wife is from Taiwan and I'm fearful for them,' " he says.

That fear hasn't gone away. Recently, planning a trip to Utah with his wife and kids and in-laws over Labor Day, he found himself worrying, and talking his family before they left.

"I don't want us to be communicating in Chinese very loudly and laughing, because I don't want unwanted attention," he told them. "I've never ever felt like I had to do that until this year."

When it comes to health and health care, the prolonged pandemic has also aggravated problems for people with serious medical conditions. Our poll found that among the 1 in 5 households reporting a problem getting care for a serious medical condition, 76% of those reported that there was a negative health consequence as a result.

Health insurance was a problem for some of these people, but certainly not all: Among households unable to get care when they needed it, 78% report having health insurance, while 22% report not having health insurance.

Harvard's Blendon says the numbers of people delaying care "were much greater than we expected," due in large part to the delta variant.

"This is the United States," Blendon tells reporter James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio. "You don't expect people with serious illnesses to say they cannot be seen for care."

This poll was conducted August 2 – September 7, 2021, among a probability-based, address-based, nationally representative sample of 3,616 U.S. adults ages 18 or older. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese according to respondents' preferences. The margin of error at the 95% confidence interval is ± 3.4 percentage points for national results. Read the poll results in detail here.

NPR reporters will dive more deeply into these and other findings from our poll during the coming weeks.

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

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the pandemic lingers, many Americans have fallen behind and are feeling anxious. That's the takeaway from a new poll out this morning from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin's been sorting through the results, and she joins us now. Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this poll's going to hit a lot of us close to home.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What does it mean to say Americans are behind? Behind on what?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, they're behind on rent, on their credit cards. Kids, as we all know, have fallen behind in school. Patients haven't been able to get health care. And Americans are also on edge. A lot of people feel personally threatened or fearful of being attacked, or they're depressed and can't sleep.

MARTIN: Wow. So we're going to dig into some of that. But first, this poll, we should say, is following up on one that was done around the same time last year, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, exactly. Robert Blendon, who's an emeritus professor in health policy at Harvard's Chan School, led both polls, and he says this one was supposed to show something else.

ROBERT BLENDON: This poll was geared for the period after COVID was over - America was opening up, going back.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, that is not what happened. Delta came along. Vaccinations dropped off. So instead, some people, especially higher-income people, are doing OK, starting to get back to normal. But for others, normal is a long way off.

BLENDON: And also, our poll ended right when people lost their unemployment, and they lost the CDC protection for not losing your rental property.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So there he's talking about the end of the eviction moratorium.

MARTIN: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The survey was done from the beginning of August until the beginning of September. About 3,600 people were surveyed. And to learn some of the stories behind the findings and to get updates on how people are doing now, I called some of the respondents back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I'm following up on a survey that you took a few weeks ago about delta and COVID in American households.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: You remember that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For a lot of the people I reached, it seems like the pandemic took the jar of their lives and shook up the contents.

LUZ MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Everything was fine until the pandemic hit, and then it was, like, my world, so to speak, turned upside down overnight.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Luz Maria Rodriguez. She's 67 and lives in Houston. Last summer, her brother died of a stroke, and she ended up needing to move into a new apartment with her son. With expensive car repairs and the costs of the move, she spent all of her savings. Nearly 1 in 5 households are in the same boat; they lost all of their savings during the pandemic and have nothing left to fall back on.

RODRIGUEZ: Things have started crumbling down. I mean, behind on utilities and credit cards.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And her rent has been tough to make with her son's salary and her Social Security. One in four renters, nationally, said they had trouble making rent in the last few months. In Houston, more than half had trouble. Rodriguez ended up going to food banks for the first time in her life.

RODRIGUEZ: There was nights I couldn't sleep. I don't know. I was just - it was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: A lot of Americans are lying in bed, anxious, unable to sleep. In the poll, someone in half of households had serious problems with depression or sleep or stress in the last few months. I also reached Brittany Mitchell.

BRITTANY MITCHELL: I live in Gaston, S.C. And I am a full-time cake decorator at our local Food Lion grocery store.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She and her family were weathering the pandemic OK until this past June. Her husband is a butcher.

MITCHELL: They started cutting hours, and then after a while, they started cutting staff. And he just happened to be one of the staff members that they let go. There was a good two months where we really could not - we couldn't pay rent. We couldn't pay electric. We couldn't pay for our internet or anything like that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In the poll, 38% of households had serious financial problems in the last few months. For households making under $50,000 a year, roughly 60% had serious problems. Mitchell was able to enroll in rental assistance. She said her landlord was very understanding. And her husband was able to get a new job. But now they're behind on utility and car payments, and she says from her vantage point, it just seems like people are on edge.

MITCHELL: It's getting to the point where people are starting arguments in the grocery store, yelling at each other, and they're fighting over toilet paper again. And I watched two old women have the biggest argument over a can of collard greens, the last can - the biggest argument I've ever seen in my life over some collard greens. I mean, I think it's going to get a lot worse before it does get better.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For some people, that sense of being on edge connects to personal safety. One in four Asian American households said they recently feared being threatened or physically attacked. Nearly as many Black and Native Americans felt the same way. Harry Ting lives outside of Los Angeles. He emigrated from Taiwan when he was 11 years old, and he's a naturalized citizen.

HARRY TING: Personally, actually, I identify myself as very American, and, you know, I'm kind of proud of that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In March 2020, he drove to a Best Buy and got some suspicious looks. When he got back to his car, it had been keyed. Even now, planning a trip to Utah with his wife and kids and in-laws, he found himself worrying and talking to his family before they left.

TING: I don't want us to be communicating Chinese very loudly and laughing and people be staring at us because I just don't want unwanted attention. And I've never, ever felt like I had to do that until this year.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There are still more ways in which Americans have fallen behind. Nearly 1 in 5 households say someone in the family had to delay medical care in the last few months, and nearly 70% of households with school-aged children say their kids fell behind with their learning last year. Will Walsh in Radford, Va., home-schooled his son last year in eighth grade. He said he and his wife just had trouble getting the hang of it. And this year...

WILL WALSH: We were worried. You know, he's starting ninth grade. You know, he's going back to school. Did he fall behind?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But things are looking up. His son is in person in high school now, getting good grades, and Walsh is hopeful the delta outbreak is on the way out.

WALSH: We're looking, for the first time, having my entire family here for Christmas. And if we can do that, that'd be a wonderful thing.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: If we can do that - so hopeful that things are heading back towards normal but aware that there's still a lot of uncertainty about what's in store.

MARTIN: I mean, I appreciate that you tried to end this piece on an up note, Selena, but so much of what comes out of this poll is just really sobering.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's true. And it's striking because the country's leaders knew how difficult and disruptive the pandemic would be and passed trillions in funding, and Robert Blendon from Harvard points out 2 out of every 3 households said they were getting federal assistance.

BLENDON: So what does that really say? It says that for people in the bottom of income, the federal assistance that they're getting or can get is not providing a floor for them.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: We're now in a key moment. Congress is working on a new package to enact some key parts of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda. These results show people still need to just get back to baseline.

MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin on NPR's new survey out today of American households and the delta outbreak. Selena, thanks.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.