Recovery from pandemic must not leave behind American middle class

A new poll on the financial, social and mental well-being of Americans shows far too many still suffering deeply from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially low-income families and people of color.

The poll, conducted by a consortium headed by National Public Radio, gives a status report of Americans based on a range of issues — the state of their personal finances, their ability to pay housing costs, how the pandemic affected their children’s educational progress, and more. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health joined NPR in conducting the poll, which drew responses from a nationally representative group of more than 3,500 Americans.

The findings make for painful reading, revealing a country where, despite billions of dollars in relief money being distributed to Americans by federal and state governments amid the pandemic, large sections of the population still face uncertainty and intense anxiety. What’s clear is that the relief funding didn’t provide an adequate “floor” of financial and social-service support for Americans, many of whom are still sinking despite the economy’s bounceback from the depths of 2020.

It makes a strong argument for ongoing investment of public funding to support America’s working class and middle class, including in areas such as job training, child care and other “human infrastructure” elements like those contained in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. We’ll expand on that point in a moment, but first a look at some of the key polling results:

• 38% of respondents reported suffering serious financial problems, which include an inability to pay the mortgage or rent, pay for utilities, make car payments, buy food, etc. The figures were much higher among Hispanic, Black and Native American households — 57%, 56% and 50%, respectively.

• 19% of households lost all of their savings and now have nothing to fall back on if faced with another crisis. Black families were hit particularly hard, with 31% of respondents reporting that they’d depleted their savings. As stated well by Harvard public health professor Robert Blendon to NPR, “what we have here is a lot of people who are still one step from drowning financially.”

• 36% of respondents reported that their children had fallen significantly behind in school.

These and other struggles have combined to take a toll on Americans’ mental and emotional health. Half of the respondents reported that at least one person in their home has endured serious problems with sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, etc.

The poll also reveals a wide discrepancy in how the pandemic affected Americans of color versus the white population.

All of this underscores the wisdom of spending state and federal dollars on education, social services, infrastructure and other programs that strengthen the safety net and open new job opportunities for working Americans.

Investments like this benefit everyone in our nation, regardless of income level. Biden’s infrastructure plan, for instance, would create thousands of jobs through reconstruction of roads, bridges, water systems, etc., while modernizing schools and other buildings nationwide and making communities environmentally healthier.

Meanwhile, investing in child care and other basic needs allows qualifying families to save or spend more of their income. Contrary to the rhetoric from Republicans and some misguided Democrats that spending on social services creates an “entitlement” culture, it actually gives families more buying power, along with a better pathway toward self-sustainability and away from public assistance.

The pandemic exposed fault lines that have been widening for years across our society, including in income inequality, access to health care, disparities in the quality of schools between low- and high-income neighborhoods, and more.

The poll, unfortunately, shows that the damage from the crisis won’t heal quickly. Despite a reduction in unemployment and improvement across several metrics of the economy, many Americans are still mired in desperation. As a nation, we can’t abandon the working class and middle class in what is still a time of need.