Coronavirus

‘They Build On Each Other’: Low-Wage Workers Feel The Brunt Of Harvey And COVID-19

Many of the populations most impacted by the pandemic are still reeling from Hurricane Harvey.

Flooding in Downtown Houston During Harvey
Flooding in downtown Houston after Harvey hit the region in August 2017.

NPR and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a new report on the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data shows that 63% of Houston households have had serious financial problems since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

These struggles are disproportionately affecting Black and Latino residents by huge margins. Around 80% of Black and Latino households said they're facing serious financial problems, compared to only 30% of white households.

The report surveyed about 500 people from each of the four biggest cities in the country: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Houston Public Media spoke about the findings of the report with Bill Fulton, Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, which has studied similar impacts of the pandemic. As Fulton notes, many of the populations most impacted by the pandemic are still reeling from Hurricane Harvey.

Listen to the full story:

The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The report showed 63% of Houston households are struggling financially. Do you find these findings surprising? Does this align with any of the research from the Kinder Institute?

What we’ve found, generally speaking, is that there’s been a significant income decline in 30-40% of households and of course, non-white households are generally more heavily affected. So 63% is actually surprisingly high.

You mentioned non-white households being hardest hit. Do you have a sense why?

In general, white-collar office workers have been more protected from financial declines. They have been able to continue to do their work and their organizations have continued to stay in business.

Many businesses that require on-site employees have struggled much more to stay in business and to stay profitable. We’ve seen "essential worker" jobs decline more. 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.

The report says Black and Latino residents have been hit the hardest. So have households making under $100,000 a year. Do you have a sense of what the financial health of these demographics in Houston looked like before the pandemic?

Even before the pandemic, people who make $30,000 to $50,000 to $70,000 for a household were already struggling. They can’t afford to buy a house — the housing market was deeply affected by Hurricane Harvey. In many cases, they’ve had to move from central locations to outlying locations, which means they’re more dependent on cars, which are very expensive. So those folks were hanging on the edge.

How do the numbers from this report on the pandemic compare to post-Hurricane Harvey? Can you compare the two situations?

Well, I think they build on each other, right? Hurricane Harvey was a disastrous event, especially for low-wage workers. A very large percentage of low-wage workers live in apartments in the floodplain. Many of them lost their homes or their cars, so they were already under tremendous financial pressure. Now, COVID comes along and in many cases, they lose their jobs or their hours are cut.

So the two events together, it’s not so much comparing the two. It’s the fact that one followed the other so closely, when so many families were already struggling, that has made this such an extremely difficult situation here in Houston.

Sara Willa Ernst is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara’s work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required

Share