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Poverty Levels In Minority Communities On The Rise

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, applications for unemployment benefits jumped unexpectedly to their highest since August. This as a new economic report by Columbia University finds that millions more Americans are falling into poverty with the expiration of benefits from the CARES Act. It also says Black people and Latinos are more than twice as likely as white people to be poor in this country - people like Jasmine (ph), a 22-year-old Black woman here in Washington, D.C. We aren't using Jasmine's full name because of the social stigma associated with poverty. She tried to get pandemic unemployment assistance back in the spring when everything shut down. And she couldn't start a new job at Nationals stadium.

JASMINE: I was receiving $500 a week. It was rarely enough, but it helped me out. And that stopped, I believe, in June. And ever since then, I have been going through a lot of financial burdens.

MARTIN: Jasmine is a single mom. She's home with her four young kids, including a 3-month-old, making it impossible to look for other work. She's already burned through the $4,000 she managed to save up while receiving assistance.

JASMINE: Like, I spent all of it - from buying food and things that needed to be - like car insurance and gas. And it hasn't gotten me that far.

MARTIN: With Congress unable to agree on a new round of coronavirus assistance, people like Jasmine are slowly dropping further into poverty every day. We're going to dig into the causes of this with William Spriggs. He's the chief economist for the AFL-CIO and also a professor of economics at Howard University in Washington. Thanks for being here this morning.

WILLIAM SPRIGGS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What's going to happen to people like Jasmine if Congress can't agree on more federal aid.

SPRIGGS: For the moment, some people, depending upon where they live, are benefiting from the halting of evictions. But that means they're building up arrears and their rent. Many of them, because they don't have a flow of income, are also building up arrears on utilities. Or they're borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and they're building up arrears there, as well. The problem for others is they are in places where evictions are taking place. They are going to need extra deposits in order to get the next rent. Their credit score will have suffered. In some cases, people are sophisticated enough to use the forbearance that's out there for credit cards. Many people don't know about this. And some of them are getting penalties for missing credit card payments.

MARTIN: So it's just a cycle that keeps feeding and pushing people further into this place.

SPRIGGS: Exactly. It spirals out of control. And the problem is, as you mentioned, on the unemployment insurance claims, while we did see the rebound that everyone expected, that rebound has slowed. And the last three months, we've seen progressively lower job creation, a build-up of people who are now permanently unemployed, as opposed to people reporting that they're temporarily unemployed. And for African Americans, the labor market has now turned back to its discriminating self.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask about that. I mean, this is heading Blacks in America and Latinos harder than whites. This is a big question, and a lot of it is structural. But can you give a concise answer as to why?

SPRIGGS: Well, there's clear discrimination in the labor market. So the unemployment rate last month for high-school dropouts was lower than the Black unemployment rate. That's the depth of the discrimination that Black workers face, that their unemployment rate is higher than the unemployment rate of high-school dropouts in this nation.

MARTIN: Let me ask, when it comes to children, child poverty, I mean, we know that a recent study by the University of Chicago and Notre Dame found that Black people and kids have been hit so hard. If we can't turn things around, what does life look like for those children?

SPRIGGS: This is the real tragedy. We know that spells of poverty permanently scar children because they fall behind on so many dimensions. And that's why it's necessary that we stop this economic pain as soon as possible. It's a long-term scarring for our economy, not just the scarring that we're having immediately, which is very deep to our labor market.

MARTIN: William Spriggs is the chief economist for the AFL-CIO. He is also a professor of economics at Howard University. We so appreciate you taking the time this morning. Thank you.

SPRIGGS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.