Poor Americans Hit Hardest by Job Losses Amid Covid-19 Lockdowns, Fed Says

Households entered the coronavirus shutdown in precarious economic positions that have only worsened as workers are furloughed by the millions, and the challenges are especially acute for the poorest Americans, according to a Federal Reserve survey released Thursday.

One in five people who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, the data showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

Lawmakers have responded with $2 trillion in relief spending, expanding unemployment insurance and forgivable loans to small business. But most families would not have gotten relief checks by the time the Fed survey was fielded in early April. Policymakers and economic experts increasingly worry that it will prove insufficient to stem the damage, as the timeline for reopening and the path back for consumer spending remain uncertain.

The Fed’s report included both a large annual survey fielded in October and a roughly 1,000-person supplement conducted April 3 to April 6, and it showed just how intense — and disparate — the economic fallout has been so far.

While about 53 percent of those with jobs worked from home at the end of March, that was a highly educated group. More than 60 percent of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree worked completely from home, versus 20 percent of those with a high school degree or less.

Among those who had lost hours or jobs amid the pandemic, 48 percent were “finding it difficult to get by” or “just getting by,” according to the survey. Just 64 percent of those who had taken an employment hit felt that they would be able to pay their bills in April, compared with 85 percent of those without a work disruption.

Those challenges came as a large swath of Americans took pay cuts. About 23 percent of all adults, and 70 percent of those who had lost their jobs or their hours reduced, said their income was lower in March than in February.

That coronavirus lockdowns have hit disadvantaged communities hard comes as no surprise to Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. Mr. Ash said his food pantry network, which typically serves 32,000 households weekly, had seen traffic increase by about 26,000 since the crisis began.

At one location, “the line stretched, when the pantry opened, around 10 city blocks,” he said. “People have to have a motivation to wait in a line like that.”

While food bank pantry visits also increased during the Great Recession, that wave of demand came slowly — this one hit suddenly, and has not abated even after the government response kicked in.

“People were feeling the same angst as those with more money were feeling,” he suggested, so while the well-to-do went the Safeway to fill their pantries, those of lesser means went to the food bank. While Mr. Ash’s organization doesn’t ask for recipient information, his sense from volunteering at one of the food pickups is that many of those seeking assistance are newly in need.

“A good number of them, they don’t know what the procedures are — there’s a group that just hasn’t asked for food help in the past,” he said. He and his colleagues are beginning to plan for elevated demand over the next six to 12 months, he said.

There are signs that coronavirus’ economic damage could take longer to fade than many were hoping.

About nine in 10 workers who had lost jobs in the Fed’s survey anticipated that they would return to work for the same employer or said they had already returned to work, but the vast majority of those people do not have a specific date yet. About 5 percent had already returned to work, and 8 percent did not expect to go back to the same employer.

“Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” he said in his speech.

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