Report: Pandemic further straining low-income families, widening racial prosperity gap

Report: Pandemic further straining low-income families, widening racial prosperity gap

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new report from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice details how the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled financially insecure Alabamians and disproportionately hurt Black Alabamians economically and health-wise, creating dire situations for some families.

The report is the result of surveying 389 financially insecure Alabamians from 32 counties between May and September 2020, seeking to understand how the pandemic has changed daily lives and financial circumstances.

Nearly half of respondents had lost their jobs since March 13, but only about four in 10 of those who applied for unemployment benefits received them, usually after weeks of waiting, the report said.

A little more than half of the respondents also said that if they kept their job, they made less money from work since March.

“A vaccination program is only the start of the recovery,” Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed said in a press release. “Alabama Appleseed calls on Alabama’s elected leaders at both the state and federal level to take bold, imaginative steps to mitigate the dire financial circumstances so many Alabamians find themselves in and ensure everyone has what they need to get back on their feet.”

Black Alabamians have disproportionately borne the brunt of hardship in Alabama during the pandemic and have the highest death rate of any racial or ethnic group in the state.

The report found 55% of Black workers held essential occupations such as registered nurses, cashiers and cooks where there is greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, compared to just 43% of white workers.

Black workers were also over represented in the bottom wage quartile, where the rate of employment in Alabama dropped 16.7% between January and October, compared with less than 7% middle- and high-wage workers.

The report found that seven out of 10 respondents could not pay for basic reoccurring expenses like mortgages, rent, car payments, utilities, credit cards or student loans because the pandemic changed their financial circumstances.

Nearly a quarter of respondents feared or were threatened with eviction and 4% were evicted.

Eight percent of survey respondents had to physically go to court during the pandemic. More than half were there to make an installments on payment plans or attend a compliance hearing regarding fines and fees.

Appleseed’s recommendations include:

  • Protecting families who face eviction or foreclosure;
    • Fully funding food banks;
    • Keeping incarceration levels as low as possible given that social distancing is impossible in prisons and jails;
    • Expanding Medicaid and shoring up Alabama’s weakening hospital infrastructure;
    • Ending practices like debt-based drivers license suspensions that criminalize poverty and make it harder for Alabamians to get to work.

Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told Alabama Daily News he believes a lot of the problems the state is facing is because of inconsistent messaging from the federal government from the beginning of the pandemic.

“All of this has to do with consumer behavior and the fear that because of the mismanagement of the crisis at the federal level and giving no guidance to the state on how to handle it, has really created a snowball effect that will make it really difficult for us to get back to where we were,” Daniels said.

Daniels said he thought Gov. Kay Ivey had done an equitable job in distributing COVID-19 relief dollars and he plans on focusing possible future legislation on how to help Alabama small businesses.

“A lot of the time we focus our intentions on luring large companies into the state or from the tech industry, and while I love and support the tech industry because of where I live, I think that the diversification of opening up incentives to those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic is something we have to look at as well,” Daniels said.