David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

For many of us in New York and indeed across the country, this Thanksgiving will be painful. The coronavirus crisis has seen to that by upending and in many cases cancelling the traditional ways we celebrate the holiday and by tearing through the country with a vengeance as we head into the winter months.

But this Thanksgiving will also be painful for a deeper reason: the virus continues to take a disproportionate toll on Black and minority communities. A recent Washington Post analysis of records from 5.8 million people, covering early March through mid-October, found that Black, Asian, Native American and Latinx patients still die at higher rates than white patients, despite the fact that death rates have fallen for all races and age groups since the virus peaked in the spring.

Not surprisingly, the economic consequences of the COVID pandemic, specifically the loss of employment income for communities of color, low-income households, young people and those without a college degree, are proving to be just as devastating and inequitable as the health-related effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York City.

To better understand the hardships faced by low-income New Yorkers, the Community Service Society regularly surveys low-income households for its annual Unheard Third, the only poll of low-income opinion of its kind in the U.S. Our 2020 Unheard Third survey featured a special battery of coronavirus-related questions designed to uncover the ways in which low-income New Yorkers have been affected by the pandemic, including the areas of health, employment, access to federal relief and unemployment insurance benefits, and housing security.

The findings paint a bleak picture for those at the lowest end of the economic ladder.

A full forty-five percent of low-income New Yorkers surveyed said that they or a member of their household had been furloughed, temporarily laid off, or lost their job permanently since the start of the pandemic, compared to a third of those with moderate to higher incomes. New Yorkers of color were hit especially hard: 43 percent of Latinx, 41 percent of Asians, and 41 percent of Black residents reported temporary or permanent loss of employment in their households, as compared to only 29 percent of white residents.

These findings are terrifying, but not surprising. Low-income New Yorkers power the City’s service industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Latinx and Asian residents make up 64 percent of workers in the City’s restaurant industry, which has suffered widespread layoffs due to mandatory closures and social distancing orders, and the inability to function with low or no foot traffic. Young New Yorkers, who also make up a sizable share of those working in the hard-hit low-wage service and hospitality industries, were twice as likely as those aged 50 and older to lose employment income related to the coronavirus. And the shift to remote work during the pandemic hurt less-educated workers the hardest: 41 percent of New Yorkers without a college education reported loss of household employment income, compared to 32 percent of those with a college education.

The scale of job loss and pay cuts among low-income New Yorkers is now worse than during the 2008-2009 Great Recession with Queens and the Bronx taking the biggest hits. Over a third of Queens residents said that they or someone in their household lost their job since the pandemic started, more than double the share reporting job loss during the Recession. About a third of Bronx residents reported job loss in their household, up from less than a quarter in 2009.

Neighborhoods in the Queens and the Bronx, which suffered the highest number of confirmed COVID cases and deaths, also make up eight out of the top ten communities in the city with the greatest share of workers in the hardest-hit job sectors – restaurants, hotels, retail and personal care services – adding to the crippling impact of the pandemic in these two boroughs.

The pandemic has also triggered a rise in food and housing insecurity, most notably in the Bronx, where unemployment now stands at 18.8 percent, the highest of all five boroughs. A staggering 83 percent of low-income Bronx residents who lost employment income in their household said that they received free food or meals from a food pantry, family, or friends; went hungry; or often skipped meals.

Low-income Bronx residents also report the greatest housing instability. Sixty-one percent of Bronx respondents said that they had fallen behind on their rent or mortgage payments, had doubled up with others, had their utilities shut off due to nonpayment, or were threatened with eviction or foreclosure, as compared to 39 percent in Manhattan.

These are grim findings indeed, yet there’s reason to be hopeful this Thanksgiving. A working coronavirus vaccine could soon be a reality; and President-elect Biden has pledged to bring resources to small business, families, schools and state and local governments to power the economic recovery in the first 100 days of his presidency. It will take immediate, decisive action to turn things around, and we count on the new occupant of the White House to deliver it.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years.  The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer.  The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.