COVID-19 pandemic could cause more financial suffering for low-income workers and the poor

Updated: Apr. 27, 2020 at 9:34 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - The ongoing COVID-19 health crisis could thrust some low-income workers and the poor deeper into poverty. Long before the pandemic, poverty was a problem in Louisiana.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.6 percent of the state’s residents lived in poverty in 2018.

Dr. Allison Plyer, chief demographer with The Data Center in New Orleans, discussed the pre-COVID impoverishment in the state.

"Nearly one in five people in Louisiana was living in poverty before COVID hit,” said Plyer. “New Orleans was a bit higher. About 24 percent of the city was living below the poverty level."

Prof. Ashraf Esmail, PhD., is a Dillard University sociologist. He also weighed in on the financial plight of many in the New Orleans area.

"Twenty percent of the people in New Orleans don't even have a car and so many of them are relying on public transit, public services,” said Esmail.

He agrees that the longer the pandemic goes on, the worse it may be for those already struggling financially.

"The longer it lasts, yes, most definitely. I think that's why it's nerve wracking especially for people in our local economy because of the amount of people living paycheck-to-paycheck is higher than most states and most cities,” stated Esmail.

The local tourism industry is basically shutdown due to the virus’ impact on global and domestic travel.

Plyer dissected recent unemployment claims’ numbers.

"We know that about 19 percent of all of the workers in the metro area have filed for unemployment, so that's a really large number. We can look at those numbers at the state level by industry and about a third of food service and accommodations workers have filed for unemployment, as well as folks in other services, retail as well,” said Plyer.

Esmail said it is a fact that many workers in the state take home little money.

"Most people that work in service sector jobs whether restaurants and other areas tend to be low-income people, so they're exceedingly putting themselves more at risk, you know, because of the virus, they don't have paid vacation days or things of that nature,” he said.

The worsening financial picture for many workers could have them looking to local and state government for more social services but Plyer does not think they will be in a position to provide more help.

"It's not at all likely that local and state governments can provide significantly more services for folks who are under financial strain,” she said.

Plyer said those suffering financially must avail themselves of new government benefits related to the pandemic.

"I think that low-wage earners have to very persistently work on getting benefits available to them, whether it's food stamps or unemployment benefits, etc. They also need to be well-aware of the new laws, that there's a moratorium on evictions. If they're being threatened with an eviction they should push back,” she said.

Esmail said the cost of living will make it hard for people at the lower end of the economic ladder to catch up even with government assistance linked to the coronavirus.

"You're talking about people who don't have any money, can't pay rent, I mean, you're sending people some money but typically just to eat food you need $300 a week, etc., so the little amount maybe the government is sending is not going to be sufficient and so the longer this lasts the more you put more people into poverty and shifting even more so into homelessness,” said Esmail.

Plyer is urging people without surplus dollars to be frugal with the government funding they receive.

"If they get a check from the federal government, whether it's employment or stimulus check they need to think, you know, they might have some expenses in the future,” she said.

Esmail said while many are pushing for states to reopen their economies there are other considerations that must be taken into account.

"I think that’s why there’s the mindset across the country, let’s get back open, let’s get back to work and you have to understand why, but there’s always that dilemma of the, you know, we don’t want to start the spread more again, so there’s always that catch-22,” he said.

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