What COVID data misses — over half of Houstonians have faced financial hardship due to the pandemic

By Shao-Chee Sim, EHF’s VP for Research Innovation and Evaluation and
Chris Hensman, Director of New Programs at Arnold Ventures

This post originally was published in the Houston Chronicle

Pictures from ICUs and rising death statistics don’t capture the entirety of how COVID-19 hurts Houstonians. If you want to see the full picture of how the coronavirus has turned lives upside-down, look at the lines outside food banks or the daily number of eviction hearings in justice of the peace courtrooms.

With news of COVID-19 vaccines in the headlines, it can feel like we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Make no mistake: There is still a long, dark path until we emerge on the other side of the pandemic. Our nation will continue to suffer not just from the virus but from the economic and social fallout of the pandemic. Policymakers and philanthropies cannot ease efforts to help people through this crisis.

Houston will not be an exception. Now is the time to double down on aid and targeting it to those most in need.

Daily statistics on COVID cases and deaths tell us very little about the fuller extent of the pandemic’s impact on residents. That’s why we launched an in-depth survey of Harris County residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the impact on their health, economic conditions and hopes for the future and released the findings in October.

Poverty rates in Houston are traditionally lower than the state level according to census data, so we thought that Houstonians might be weathering the economic impact of the pandemic better than the rest of Texas. That’s not what we found. Our research revealed that people in Harris County are actually more likely to suffer financially due to the pandemic than those in other parts of the state. Six in 10 Harris County residents say they experienced financial hardship and 44 percent said they lost household income due to COVID-19. That’s compared to 48 percent of all Texans reporting financial difficulty and 36 percent saying they lost household income.

To be blunt, Houston’s higher wealth is not protecting Houstonians. However, the impact isn’t the same for everyone. In the study we found three key disparities — income, race and education.

First, people with higher incomes were less likely to report an economic blow from the pandemic. Seventy-two percent of residents with household incomes under $75,000 a year say they experienced financial troubles compared to 45 percent of residents with annual incomes above $75,000.

Second, the economic pain from COVID is falling along racial lines. More Black and Hispanic residents in Harris County report suffering financially than Anglo residents.

Third, people with higher education degrees are less likely to suffer the economic consequences of COVID. Nearly half of people with less than a college degree reported losing a job, business or wages, while that was true for only 35 percent of people with college degrees.

This data suggests that there is a continued need for financial relief for our area. Programs should dig deeper into their data and networks to ensure that assistance is flowing equitably to populations who are hurting the most. For example, we know from overlapping data sets that people disproportionately suffering during the pandemic are also more likely to lack a reliable internet connection and have lower educational attainment, and therefore may need assistance accessing and navigating the burdensome applications for government or charitable assistance.

In our research, we also found that 63 percent of Houston families financially hurt by the pandemic are likely to have skipped or postponed medical care — in contrast to only 38 percent of households not financially impacted by the pandemic. This delay risks turning manageable or preventable conditions into a second pandemic of chronic health crises. Innovative models may be necessary to ensure that people most at risk are able to receive medical treatment for non-COVID conditions.

Finally, any COVID assistance program has to be accessible to Houstonians who lack immigration documentation. Our research found this demographic felt less prepared for dealing with COVID despite the fact that almost 40 percent hold jobs that are deemed essential — more than the general population. Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic. While local relief programs need to continue to look creatively at ways we can support our undocumented neighbors, we also must make certain existing assistance programs do not unintentionally disincentivize participation by collecting unnecessary information, requiring burdensome processes, or allowing the spread of misinformation.

The COVID pandemic has underscored the importance of relying on data in order to craft effective medical responses that save the most lives with the most effective use of limited resources. On the economic front in this ongoing battle, charities and politicians have to pay attention to the data and make sure financial supports and other help, goes to where it can do the most good. Following the data can guide us safely to the end of this dark and dangerous path.