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COVID’s financial toll: 38 million people, 15% of Americans, say they’re worse off

Many say their financial circumstances are the same or better than before. But 1 in 3 who were living below the poverty line pre-COVID say their finances are worse now.

While most Americans have weathered the pandemic financially, about 38 million say they are worse off now than before the outbreak began in the United States, according to a new poll from Impact Genome and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.In this May 7, 2020, file photo, a person looks inside the closed doors of the Pasadena Community Job Center in Pasadena, Calif., during the coronavirus outbreak.
While most Americans have weathered the pandemic financially, about 38 million say they are worse off now than before the outbreak began in the United States, according to a new poll from Impact Genome and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
AP

Though most Americans say they have weathered the pandemic OK financially, about 38 million say they are worse off now than before the outbreak began.

Overall, 55% say their financial circumstances are about the same now as a year ago, and 30% say their finances have even improved. But 15% say they’re worse off.

That’s according to a new poll from Impact Genome and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The problem is more pronounced at lower-income levels: 29% of Americans living below the federal poverty line say their personal finances worsened in the past year. Roughly that many also find themselves in a deepening financial hole, saying they’ve struggled to pay bills in the past three months.

Britney Frick, 27, is among those whose finances have taken a hit. She worked as a substitute teacher before the pandemic, but her role was eliminated. She found a telecommunications job that allowed her to work from home, but the hours began to dwindle, then dried up altogether.

Frick ended up unemployed for six months but was able to get by in part thanks to savings, reduced rent and help from her parents.

“I am slowly getting back on my feet but am nowhere near where I was before COVID,” she says.

Frick got a job at a daycare center in March. The steady work is helping rebuild her finances.

“I am still living paycheck to paycheck, but at least the paycheck is covering the bills,” she says. “But I am happy to be back at work honestly and happy that things are kind of returning to normal.”

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy — the United States has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it had in February 2020, before the pandemic hit.

The new poll found 52% of Americans say they were able to save money for most of the past three months, 37% broke even, and 10% were short on paying bills.

Among Americans below the poverty line, 29% say they struggled to pay bills recently, and just 16% have saved. By comparison, 61% of those living far above the poverty line say they have been able to save.

There also are wide racial disparities, with 57% of white Americans, 47% of Hispanics and just 39% of Black Americans saying they’ve saved recently. Black and Hispanic Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to say they have come up short on paying their bills.

Andrew Holland says his family’s finances were fairly steady for most of the pandemic. The California resident worked as a hospice nurse and case manager, and his wife kept her job with a refinery. But the stress and isolation of the pandemic led him to reconsider his work.

Unlike before the pandemic, he had no in-person interaction with colleagues or friends to relieve some of the pressure of his job. So he quit and found a new job in hospice care, with fewer hours. His wife also got a new job with better pay.

Their finances took a temporary hit, and they tapped some savings. But he expects to recover. Holland, 35, and his wife have started tracking their spending more closely and are now planning for an earlier retirement.

“This really made me look at what do I want to do and when do I want to do it,” Holland says. “I feel incredibly lucky that the worst that happened is I lost a month’s of wages and got a job with fewer hours.”

The poll found many Americans — nearly a third — had not had investment or similar long-term savings accounts set up even before the pandemic. Another 19% say they have been able to add more to investments like a 401(k) or a college savings plan, and 38% say the amount hasn’t changed compared to last year.

Holland says he’s disheartened by the inequality of how the pandemic has played out for people and concerned the imbalance won’t ever be corrected.

“I am glad that it gave me the push to look at my finances and plan a little bit more for the future,” he says. “I definitely wish it had come at a much lower cost for the world as whole.”

Editor’s note: The AP-NORC poll of 2,374 adults was conducted Feb. 12-March 3 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.