April Grant likes to cook. It’s been therapeutic for her since she lost her job as a private bartender last month due to the coronavirus.
To pass the time in her Dolton home, she does yoga, binge watches television crime dramas (Law & Order: SVU is a favorite) and reads (a friend gave her “The Zombie Survival Guide.”)
“It’s like a funny book, but I guess we are in an apocalypse,” Grant, 44, said.
Gallows humor aside, Grant’s not sure she will have enough money to pay her bills past this month. She can’t file for unemployment benefits but should receive a stimulus check from the federal government as part of a sweeping coronavirus relief package.
“I do just basically live off of my tips,” Grant said, adding that in the past several weeks, she’s become more anxious. “Whatever money I do have saved up, I’m kind of going through it with day-to-day expenses as far as utilities and food supply.”
Many self-employed people like Grant can’t work from home. While she stays home unable to earn a paycheck, Grant said she feels her work isn’t valued by society.
“They do just see us as, oh, you’re just a bartender. We’re not just bartenders. We’re a lot more than that. We’re a part of the working force,” Grant said.
Grant is African American. In Chicago, most employees in restaurants, food services, childcare and cleaning are black or Latino.
The cooks, the grocery store workers and bus drivers are more vulnerable to weathering the economic devastation brought on by the current health crisis, which will widen the racial wealth gap, experts say. And nationally, it’s the same. Higher wage workers are more likely to be able to telework — and they’re more likely to be white.
According to 2018 U.S. census figures on Chicago, 68% of bus drivers are black; 48% of food service workers are Latino; 78% of childcare workers are black and Latino; and 72% of cleaners are black and Latino.
Racial wealth gap makes downturn worse
“Many Americans have very little cash reserves or liquid assets to sustain themselves in the event of a job loss or any type of economic shock, and that becomes even more pronounced when we consider vulnerable communities,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at The Ohio State University.
He recently co-authored a study about how policies have created a situation where communities of color are disproportionately uninsured and have fewer financial resources.
“And if I’m being specific, I would say that black, Latinx and Native communities in America as a result of our long and persistent racial wealth gap really don’t have the economic means to withstand job loss, or even have to deal with unexpected expenses that surely will arise as a result of the pandemic,” Hamilton said.
His study showed almost 30% of black college-educated households and 20% of Latino college-educated households would not be able to afford to pay all their bills after a $400 emergency expense. For non-college-educated black and Latino households, the figures increase.
Hamilton said better safety nets and infrastructure would reduce the trauma. He recommends policies such as moratoriums on housing evictions and foreclosures, and comprehensive action to reduce student debt.
Juan Sandoval works at a downtown Popeye’s restaurant, but his hours have been cut back. The fancy Italian restaurant where he was working the salad bar closed two weeks ago after mandates from the state. His savings will get him only through April.
“I’ve been working hard, done everything according to the law, and this moment I don’t exist,” Sandoval, 49, said.
Robin Davis, 41, is a bartender in the south suburbs who lost her job.
“I’m going to do what I have to do. I do have a little bit saved,” Davis said. “I know that will probably take all my savings after I pay all my bills, that includes, light, gas, a car note and rent. That will pretty much wipe me out.”
Davis said she’s considering doing home health care or driving for a ride-share service in the interim. “In order for me to stay sane I’ve been praying a lot,” she said.
Economists, advocates pushing solutions
Various federal, state and local initiatives are underway to help people with emergency needs like food and rent. And there are many local mutual aid groups providing pandemic relief.
But some say that’s not enough. Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson is part of a coalition of elected officials, grassroots groups and unions calling on more government relief with a right to recovery memo.
“In moments like this, this is where the wealth gap could potentially become exacerbated. The crisis that we’re in the midst of is simply exposing what we already know. We do not need another summit. We do not need another study group. We don’t need a focus group to tell us what we already know,” Johnson said.
To ensure recovery for all, the coalition seeks fundamental changes including paid emergency leave, free health care and guaranteed income for laid-off workers, among others.
Economists and social justice advocates alike say the pandemic can help reshape what kind of society we live in, possibly breaking down some of the structural barriers to equity. The Chicago Community Trust, a large foundation, already had a long-term objective of closing the racial wealth gap.
Helene Gayle is the president of the Trust and says a key question is, “What are we learning from this that we should take as we think about how to make our community better in the long run?”
Gayle, a physician, is an expert in disease control. She’s also a former CEO of CARE, an international humanitarian organization that has helped communities across the globe recover from earthquakes, famine and other disasters. .
“We used to talk about building back better. And that when communities were impacted, whether natural or human emergencies, can we use the work that we’re doing in emergency response to actually build a bridge to longer term so we are building greater resiliency?” Gayle said.
She said that could mean permanent measures around flexible loans or tax credits, for example.
Because after the immediate public health risk stabilizes from coronavirus, the economic devastation will still be there for months and possibly years to come. And experts say it can’t be business as usual.