En español | Although hiring has picked up in recent months, researchers are looking back to determine how widespread unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic affected working-age adults. According to at least one recent poll, “The Commonwealth Fund Health Care Coverage and COVID-19 Survey,” Black and Latino adults were more likely to experience income loss than white adults.
The Commonwealth Fund, which focuses on ways to make the health care system more equitable and effective, surveyed 5,450 workers, ages 19 to 64, from March 9 through June 8, 2021. Among White respondents, 27 percent reported that their household income has dropped since March 2020, when the national pandemic emergency was declared. But Black and Latino respondents reported much higher rates of income loss, with 44 percent of African Americans and 45 percent of Latinos reporting a decline.
Households that already would have been considered lower income before the pandemic showed the highest overall decrease, with 47 percent reporting a drop in income.
"The shutdown had a much more devastating impact on certain sectors of the economy,” says Sara Collins, vice president for health care coverage and access at the Commonwealth Fund. “Restaurants, travel businesses, hotels — those businesses were particularly hard-hit, and Black, Latinx and lower-income adults disproportionately work in these jobs. It's not surprising that the rates of income loss are higher among those groups than among white or higher-income adults."
Medical debt piles up due to workers losing health insurance
The Commonwealth Fund conducted the survey in part to determine how the spike in unemployment over the past 15 months affected people's access to health care coverage. They found that only 6 percent of respondents reported losing their health insurance during the pandemic. But that low number was partly due to the disparities between what types of jobs offer their employees health care benefits.
"The recession disproportionately affected sectors of the economy that tend to have low rates of employer-based coverage anyway, so that's part of the reason why coverage losses were lower than what was widely expected at the beginning of the pandemic,” Collins explains.
Among those who lost their health insurance, 67 percent were able to find other coverage, through COBRA, Medicaid, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, which added new enrollment periods to accommodate those who unexpectedly lost their jobs.
"The good news is that the safety net worked well for people,” Collins says.
According to the survey, over the past year the pandemic has had a profound effect on most American households, with 45 percent of respondents stating that they either lost income, lost health care coverage or were infected with COVID-19. And the consequences of those negative experiences could linger for years in the form of medical debt. Notably, in the survey, 43 percent said that recent medical debt caused them to receive a lower credit score, 35 percent said medical debt caused them to use up all of their savings, and 27 percent said that medical debt had prevented them from paying for basic necessities, such as food, heat and rent.
Policymakers really “need to look at the high rate of people who are reporting their credit scores were affected by their medical debt,” Collins says. “That's an indication of debt being sent to collection agencies and people having their credit scores ruined because of medical debt. Do we really want to penalize people's financial status because of health care that they needed and wanted to pay for?"
Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers, and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.