The COVID-19 crisis has turned parents’ lives upside down. Kids are home from school and daycare, and parents of all economic means are struggling to care for them. But while parents who are still working might be teetering between madness and exhaustion, workers who have suddenly lost jobs and income are facing a different kind of balancing act. That’s particularly the case for low-wage workers. Even when the economy was good, many were already struggling with stress and financial insecurity. Now they’re in an even more precarious position.
A recent survey of low-wage parents gives us an unusually detailed window into the stressful new reality that some of the country’s most vulnerable families are facing. Elizabeth Ananat, an economics professor at Barnard College and Anna Gassman-Pines, a public policy professor at Duke University, started the study last summer. The plan was to periodically survey the same pool of almost 700 parents who work for hourly wages in the service industry in a large U.S. city, recording the everyday pressures and anxieties that shaped low-income families’ lives. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and their project took on new meaning.
By chance, one of their surveys was conducted between late February and late March, and captured the impact of last month’s economic trainwreck in real time. The first inkling that something profound had changed in the survey participants’ lives came in mid-March. That was right around the time that the city where they lived issued a sweeping lockdown order, closing schools and nonessential businesses. (The researchers are keeping the city anonymous to protect participants’ privacy.) Two things happened almost immediately: According to a series of short daily surveys, respondents’ mental health took a sudden nosedive, and so did the hours they reported having worked that day. “This is a group that’s already experiencing a lot of stress, so any increase is noteworthy,” Gassman-Pines said. “And their stress and anxiety went way, way up after the nonessential businesses closed and their work hours fell.”
It also exposed how quickly their financial situation could turn from precarious to untenable. In addition to their monthlong survey, Ananat and Gassman-Pines sent out a separate, one-time survey in late March to gauge in more detail how respondents were doing. Less than half of the parents surveyed said that they would get any pay for lost work, including sick leave. And more than one-third reported that their income had fallen by more than half since the crisis began. Almost half of the parents in their sample had already lost their jobs.
The research gives a rare glimpse into what happened to this group of people during the devastating two-week window in March when millions of low-wage workers abruptly lost their jobs. Most of the surveys you’re used to reading about on FiveThirtyEight are designed to give a broad, comprehensive snapshot of how Americans of all stripes feel about a particular issue. But in pursuit of a result that is actually representative of the country, pollsters and researchers often sacrifice the ability to zero in on the experiences of small, highly specific slices of the population, such as the low-wage parents in Ananat and Gassman-Pines’s survey. Their findings are, in turn, limited in important ways — their respondents live in the same city, work in the same types of jobs (like retail, hospitality or house cleaning), and are all parents of young children. But when I talked to parents across the country who lost jobs and income as a result of the COVID-19 crisis — many of whom were already struggling financially — their stress and anxiety was palpable, and most were struggling to find any kind of support.
Much of the impact is falling on mothers like Chelsey Johnson, 27, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with her 10-year-old daughter. (Johnson was not part of the survey.) Right after she lost her job as a server and bartender at a local Creole restaurant, she tried to apply for unemployment insurance and was told she wasn’t eligible because a previous employer hadn’t paid into the program. She found another job, bagging and delivering lunches to local kids, but it pays less and puts her in contact with other people all day.
For women like Johnson, the COVID-19 crisis is magnifying the inequalities they already grapple with on a daily basis. According to research by the National Women’s Law Center, 74 percent of parents in the country’s 40 lowest-paying jobs are mothers. A survey by Lean In conducted in April found that women — particularly black women — were more worried than men about paying for basic necessities. It’s no wonder that the pandemic took a greater immediate emotional toll on mothers of children under the age of 18, who were substantially more likely than fathers to say the coronavirus crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in March.
“I just have to keep praying I don’t get the virus because how else am I going to make money for my baby and me?” Johnson said. Everything, she said, felt like it was falling apart — even her ability to access government resources, like food stamps, that she had gotten before. At work, while she put together lunches, she was on hold with the food stamp office for hours, trying to figure out why she hadn’t received a key piece of paperwork to finish her application. “I’m a pretty positive person and I already knew how to shuffle my money around to make it all work — pay a little bit on my rent, my car note, try to catch up when I can,” she said. “But my income is taking a hit and I’m worried about getting sick. This is a whole new level of stress.”
In theory, Johnson’s predicament should be unusual — many states loosened restrictions on unemployment insurance to make it easier for the newly jobless to apply, and governments rushed to make other emergency services, like food pickups for kids, available to people who had suddenly lost their income. But Ananat and Gassman-Pines’s survey found that most people who needed these benefits weren’t receiving them quickly. By the end of last month, less than half of the survey respondents who had been laid off had applied for unemployment insurance, and a tiny fraction of applicants (8 percent) had received it. And most of the parents also weren’t getting the government resources that were supposed to help them feed and educate the kids who were suddenly home from school. Only about half of the parents surveyed said that their children were receiving school lessons online, and very small shares said they had accessed emergency benefits like emergency child care or grab-and-go meals.
In the weeks that have passed since the survey closed, more parents in the survey have undoubtedly started to receive other benefits. But their precarious financial position meant that every day of delay made paying bills or buying food even more difficult. In late March, some parents in the survey were already struggling to pay for essentials: About one-fifth of respondents said they would be unable to pay rent in the next month if the crisis continued. And the creaky machinery of government bureaucracy has delayed unemployment insurance payments, snarled food stamp applications and held up relief checks.
Even the prospect of applying for unemployment insurance was difficult for Israel Torres, 35, a father of two who works as a culinary specialist at a university in Los Angeles. When we spoke, the university was planning to furlough its workers in a few days. (They ended up extending the deadline by a month after pressure from the workers and the union.)
“I’m trying to stay calm and not make this situation stressful for the kids, but it’s really hard when I’m thinking all the time about what happens if I stop getting paid, how I’ll cover my bills,” he said. Torres and his family live paycheck to paycheck, he said, and they were already struggling because he lost his second job at a theater that closed down early in the crisis. His children were chafing at the order to stay indoors, asking their dad if they were in prison. It was difficult enough, he said, to try to keep the children entertained and engaged with their schoolwork, and avoid falling into a depression. “I know I can apply for unemployment insurance if I get furloughed but I don’t know how much money I’d get or when it would come in,” he said. “I’m afraid it would be too late for us.”
Then there are the parents who won’t get any government aid at all — in particular, people who are living in the country illegally and aren’t eligible for benefits. Ananat and Gassman-Pines didn’t ask about immigration status in their survey, but since some estimates indicate that people living in the country illegally make up a significant chunk of the service industry, they’re among the workers who have been especially hard hit.
Amelia Rojas, who lives with her husband and four children in Connecticut, stopped going to her job as a housekeeper because she was worried about catching the virus and passing it to her children. Her husband doesn’t have the same luxury, though — after losing his job at a restaurant, their sudden loss of income meant he had to pick up a few hours working at a landscaping firm. “I’m afraid that my husband will become infected, but we have no other choice,” she said. “We don’t qualify for government help.”
Those twin anxieties — what would happen if her husband went to work, and what would happen if he didn’t — were in Rojas’s mind all the time. She described the precautions that she and her husband thought were necessary — he scrubbed himself down when he returned home from work and avoided contact with the children. “But the kids look for their dad and every time they see him, they want to be with him,” she said. And even with her husband’s limited income from landscaping, she was still figuring out how to pay their rent and cell phone bills. “I am living with so many concerns, you have no idea.”