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The Pandemic Is Having Tremendous Financial Impact On Houston, Survey Shows

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The economic fallout of the coronavirus continues for hundreds of millions of Americans. NPR surveyed people in the biggest U.S. cities to find out just how deep the financial wounds go. We found that half or more of American households have experienced a serious financial problem and that those problems are most severe in Black and Latino households. One of the cities we focused on is Houston. Health reporter Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media has the latest from that city, which in recent years has suffered not one but two disasters.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: Near the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Ramell Tamez (ph) works at a warehouse helping prepare in-flight meals for United Airlines catering. But when the airline industry started slashing service this spring, Tamez saw his hours cut to part time, and it's taken a big financial hit on him.

RAMELL TAMEZ: Mostly worried about making rent and light. I'm barely scraping by.

ERNST: Tamez has been struggling to afford food and says he's sleeping more to conserve energy. He feels he's been in freefall financially.

TAMEZ: A lot of people are looking for second jobs that are probably also part time, so it's not really doing much good. And there's not really that much work right now.

ERNST: Tamez is one of many Houstonians finding themselves in this position. Over half of Houston households surveyed say someone has lost her job, or their business has been furloughed or had hours reduced at their job during the outbreak. About a third report having trouble paying basic expenses like rent, utilities and food. This data comes from a new report by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The survey was conducted in New York, LA, Chicago and Houston in July and August. The report shows that these money struggles fall starkly along racial lines, especially in Houston. Around 80% of Black and Latino households said they're facing serious financial problems, compared to only 30% of white households. That's because white Houstonians tend to have office jobs.

BILL FULTON: In general, white-collar workers have been more protected from financial declines.

ERNST: This is Bill Fulton, the director of The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. He says office workers have been able to continue their work and stay in business. Service industry jobs, however, that require in-person interaction have struggled to stay open.

FULTON: There are simply more Black and Hispanic folk who work in those jobs. And so they've been more heavily affected than office workers who are mostly white and also Asian.

ERNST: Fulton says the financial struggles were already there from the trauma of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The coronavirus pandemic just piled on top of that.

FULTON: So the two events together, that one followed the other so closely - that has made this such an extremely difficult situation here in Houston.

ERNST: Take what happened to Pierre Laws (ph). He's always struggled financially, working as a contract driver in Cook. Then Harvey forced him into homelessness.

PIERRE LAWS: After Hurricane Harvey and I lost my car because I lost everything. And I couldn't get any help. I mean, I could get a plate of food. I was living in a tent under the bridge.

ERNST: He was starting to get back on his feet earlier this year with food stamps and a new apartment through a local nonprofit. But then the pandemic hit, and now he's stuck again. He has underlying conditions that put him at higher risk for COVID-19. He has a history of lung disease. He has trouble walking. And he's HIV positive. But he says the only jobs available would put him on the front lines.

LAWS: I go back and forth to, should I try to get a job? I can't get a job working from here because I don't have the Internet. I don't have the money for the Internet.

ERNST: He needs that to go back to school for accounting. He wants a job where you can work from home, but he recently pawned his computer for $30.

LAWS: But, I mean, I don't want to be like this forever. And I want to be able to come out of this on top, not up under.

ERNST: But for now, like other hard-strapped Houstonians, he's weighing the limited options in his head over and over again. I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.