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'My Bank Account Has $4': Pandemic Has Left Millions Of Livelihoods In Limbo

More than 10 million people in the U.S. are out of jobs, and the hardest-hit industries are also some of the lowest paying, including retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism.
Sarah Gonzales for NPR
More than 10 million people in the U.S. are out of jobs, and the hardest-hit industries are also some of the lowest paying, including retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism.

By the end of last year, the door to a dream had begun to crack open for Lilli Rayne.

She'd spent about five years building her dog-walking and pet-sitting business into a profitable venture in Asheville, N.C.

"My whole life had been entirely where I wanted it to be at that point," she recalls.

As she built her business, Rayne also left behind her history of less-than-stellar credit.

"For the first time in my life, I had a credit score that I could have finally bought a home with," she says, a dream she'd had her entire adult life.

Rayne is in her late 30s, and in a good week, she was bringing in about $600. She had some savings and enough for a house payment.

Then, coronavirus. Between the drop in people traveling and the fact that so many are working from home, the demand for dog walkers is nearly nonexistent, Rayne says.

Nine months into the pandemic, her business has basically evaporated. Instead of looking forward to buying a house, she's now dodging calls from bill collectors.

Rayne's story is playing out across the U.S. in the pandemic-induced downturn that has walloped working-class people. More than 10 million people are out of jobs, and some of the hardest-hit industries are also among the lowest paying, including retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism.

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Lilli Rayne's dog-walking and pet-sitting business in Asheville, N.C., has basically evaporated.
/ Lilli Rayne
Lilli Rayne
Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Lilli Rayne's dog-walking and pet-sitting business in Asheville, N.C., has basically evaporated.

"A lot of these jobs [are] working-class, blue-collar jobs. And the loss of these types of jobs has been devastating," says Michelle Holder, an economics professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

There are the lost wages. But losses beget further losses and the devastation compounds, Holder explains.

"For people who lose their jobs, they are at risk of losing their homes. They're at risk for food insecurity," she says. "If they have children, their children are at risk for the same things."

More than 50 million people in the U.S. will have experienced food insecurity by the end of 2020, an increase of more than 13 million from 2018, according to Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks.

Rayne has woven together a safety net since her business fell apart. She receives $192 a month in SNAP benefits to buy groceries. She also relies on the $500 in Social Security survivor benefits she began to receive after her father's death before the pandemic. Her mom pays her phone bill.

"I don't like relying on my mother. She makes very limited income herself," Rayne says. "I'm an adult. Thirty-nine years old. I should be able to pay my phone bill."

But Rayne says that her safety net is fraying. She has maxed out several credit cards and has started to take out payday loans to cover bills. She fears some of the holes in her safety net have grown big enough to fall through.

"My bank account has $4 in it right now," Rayne says. "I would love the people in Washington who have decided not to give us more stimulus money to see what it's really like to live like this."

Early in the pandemic, the federal government stepped in with a menu of aid programs, including an extra $600 per week of unemployment benefits, benefits for self-employed people who had lost work and one-time relief checks of up to $1,200 for individuals.

"The [government] stepped up and stepped in to assist people in America in getting through," says Holder. "I think that fiscal policy and public policy [were] really working at that juncture, but as time wore on and the pandemic wore on, that was not sustained."

Nearly 8 million people have fallen into poverty since the middle of the year, according to new data from researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. The researchers attribute that sharp increase to the expiration of federal aid programs created to help those in need.

Congress now appears to be on the cusp of passing a $900 billion relief package with help for people who have lost their jobs, a $600 check for individuals making less than $75,000 a year and aid for small businesses. But the help would come after many months of inaction — months that were punctuated by mass layoffs and businesses going belly up.

In March, the last time Congress came together to pass a major package of pandemic support, airlines were thrown a $58 billion lifeline.

That support likely helped keep people like Delta Air Lines customer service representative Jasmine Doakes in Cincinnati on the payroll.

"I was so excited about this year, working and just growing," she recalls. "All these plans of getting to my 10th year at Delta."

But the infusion of federal money went only so far, while air travel plummeted. In August, Doakes, 33, took a separation package from the company.

She then joined millions of other people looking for work. But Doakes also has health problems — she has lupus, an autoimmune disease — that have hindered her job search.

"So it really has been a challenge," she says.

Doakes considers herself a positive person but admits that she's struggling right now. On top of leaving her job and the challenges of lupus, she also has COVID-19 now.

"I'm grateful because I'm still alive," she says.

These days, most people do recover from the disease. And the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations is being administered.

But in a news conference last week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reminded Congress that the pandemic is far from over.

"We know there's need out there," he said. "Now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, it would be bad to see people losing their business — their life's work in many cases or even generations' worth of work — because they couldn't last another few months."

Nevertheless, Powell said, the vaccine is cause for cautious optimism: "Sometime in the middle of next year, you will see people feeling comfortable going out and engaging in a broader range of activities."

But given that the downturn has been uneven — disproportionately affecting working-class and lower-income people — there is reason to believe the recovery will be uneven as well, according to Holder, the economist.

For instance, she notes that men, and especially men of color, make up a large share of cab drivers and public transit workers.

"But this pandemic has shown us that we can work from home," she says. "And people will not necessarily need to move around outside as much as they used to. That's going to have direct implications for men of color who are overrepresented in the transportation sector."

"I do think that there are going to be some jobs that just will not return," Holder says.

Rayne, the dog walker and pet sitter in North Carolina, hopes that isn't the case for her.

"For the first time in my life, I was running my own business. And I was not only running my own business — I was really good at it," she says. "It's pet sitting. It's fun. It's casual. But to me, it's my career."

For now, her career and livelihood are on hold until the pandemic lets up and the U.S. can let its collective guard down.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 21, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of the audio and Web stories said that former Delta Air Lines employee Jasmine Doakes was laid off from her job. In fact, she took a separation package from the company when she left in August.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.