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‘We needed some food’: Seven months into pandemic, families struggle to meet basic needs

Jackie Mader  |  The Hechinger Reportplay

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After shutting down negotiations over a new COVID-19 stimulus package, President Trump said he would pass a standalone bill for $1,200 stimulus checks.

By early October, Kaneadsha Jones was close to giving up. It had been seven months since she or her husband had steady work. Seven months since her three school-age children, including a 14-year-old daughter with autism who is blind, nonverbal and immunocompromised, had been to school. Four months since a shooting on her block left her car and her family’s rented house in north Columbus, Ohio, riddled with bullet holes and her 12-year-old daughter struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The pressure of it all — the hunger, the constant worrying, the desperation to find some stability — was crushing. Some days, she struggled to get out of bed. 

“I’m so tired,” Jones said. “It seems nothing is getting a little better. The only thing that keeps me trying is my family.”

Each day she faced the same worries and tremendous stress as the day before: Would her landlord start eviction proceedings again soon? When would her car be repossessed? Was her internet bill past due, and if so, how would her children attend school online? If she put gas in the car to get to the grocery store, would she still be able to buy food? And in the rare weeks when there was a bit of money left over, should it go toward rent, water or electricity? 

Jones, 43, a U.S. Army veteran and a certified medical assistant with an associate degree in applied science, is one of millions of parents who have seen their lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic. 

For families already living in or at the edge of poverty, the effects of the pandemic have been especially devastating. With child care centers and schools closed and safety nets disintegrating under enormous demand, families that have been thrust into poverty now see little hope of getting out. Meeting basic needs like food and shelter has become a daily challenge; many are just one eviction notice away from homelessness. Across the country, parents are going without food to feed their children, relying heavily on free lunches from schools and runs to local food banks, many of which have strained to meet demand.

Families like Jones’ have clung to the hope that more federal funds would be coming to provide some sort of lifeline. But that hope dimmed early this month when President Donald Trump ended negotiations on a new stimulus bill, then backtracked, proposing a different aid plan. Relief legislation is still up in the air. 

Just hours before President Trump cut off negotiations, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell had warned that without more federal support, there would be “unnecessary hardship for households and businesses.”

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To Jones, that hardship has always seemed unnecessary, especially in a country like America. “It is ridiculous that these things are even being allowed to happen to people,” she said. “People need to know this pandemic doesn’t affect everyone the same.”

Jones has never been one to wither in the face of challenges. Discharged honorably from the military after having a seizure due to epilepsy, Jones spent years as a single mother to her four children. She tried her hand at several careers, working as a certified medical assistant at a crisis counseling and rehabilitation center, a home health aide and a patient care advocate, among other jobs. She worked even while going to school to earn her medical assistant certification in 2017, all while raising her children and ensuring they had stable housing. 

She and her daughters, 14-year-old Kamari, 12-year-old Ma’Kaylah and 8-year-old Trinity, have lived in the same rented house for more than five years. But “even when I was working, it was hard,” Jones said on a recent afternoon as she took a break from washing and detailing cars. “This pandemic has made everything that much harder.”

‘We needed some food’

Last winter, Jones had a steady, decent-paying job that she enjoyed at a call center. But in March, when the pandemic hit and schools closed, she quit. She said her bosses wouldn’t allow employees to wear masks or gloves in the packed office. They also wouldn’t let her work from home. She couldn’t risk exposing her immunocompromised daughter, Kamari, to the coronavirus. And she didn’t feel comfortable leaving her children at home all day, where the two youngest would be responsible for caring for their older sister. (Her oldest daughter, 22-year-old Brooklynn, lives in her own apartment.)

Jones hoped the beefed-up unemployment benefits in the CARES Act last spring would help the family get by. Instead, she hit a tangle of red tape: Her unemployment application was denied because she was still listed as employed in the call center’s records. When she finally proved she wasn’t, the payments were put toward a debt she owed for overpayment of previous unemployment benefits. She applied for food stamps but was stymied once again; she made too much money to qualify based on the unemployment she was supposed to be receiving but wasn’t.

Bills piled up. Jones and her husband, Ezekiel Roulette, who met several years ago while they were both working at a rehabilitation center, did any jobs they could find, including cutting grass, home demolition and running a car washing and detailing service from home. But as the pandemic spread and businesses shut down, the work dried up. 

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The family fell behind on rent. Their landlord started eviction proceedings against them in midsummer, until Jones received one-time rent assistance from IMPACT Community Action, a nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio. The nonprofit has received so many requests for help, it had to shut down its program for rental or mortgage assistance in early October and was still trying to process 3,000 applications for help in its queue. 

The family’s only stable income was $760 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance for Kamari and child support, which totals $169 a month. Rent alone, if they paid it in full, was $725. That left just about $200 for food, car payments, gas for the family’s car and utilities. Knowing the city was halting utility disconnections for nonpayment during the spring, Jones prioritized food, gas for the car and internet. Then, when the family’s federal stimulus check for $2,700 arrived in May, she spent nearly all of it catching up on utility payments. 

In August, with the new school year looming, Jones overdrew her bank account to pay for internet so her children could start virtual classes. The family had relied on free meals distributed through the girls’ schools all summer, but, more often than not, they didn’t have money to bridge the gaps between those pickups. Jones took more money she didn’t have out of her checking account for a few groceries: milk, bread, eggs and ramen noodles. “I’ll pay it back. I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “We needed some food … We’re going to do whatever we have to do.” 

Nationwide, food insecurity has become an increasingly pervasive problem. The percentage of families with children who reported not having enough to eat more than tripled in July 2020 compared with 2019. One report found nearly half of American families were living with hunger last summer.

Another found more than 40% of surveyed households with children had used up all or most of their savings by early August. Children in households making less than $100,000 have been especially impacted, with 74% of those families experiencing serious financial problems.

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Food insecurity and financial hardships have been even more devastating for Black and Latino families. In a recent study of households with children nationwide, 61% of families overall reported facing serious financial problems during the pandemic. But 86% of Latino families and 66% of Black families reported financial hardship. 

Experts say the data doesn’t paint a true picture of the damage to families. Much of it was collected before the end of provisions in the federal CARES Act, including extra unemployment money that many families used to make up for job losses. 

“Now that some of those (protections) have fallen off, our assumption is that the situation is probably worse,” said Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which partnered with NPR and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to conduct the survey. “It’s a tragedy.”

Safeguards like stimulus payments, the federal moratorium on evictions in most cases and extra funding for food stamps need to continue, experts say. In September, more than 19 million people reported to the U.S. Department of Labor that they were unable to work at all, or worked fewer hours, because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic. Thousands of families have received eviction notices despite a federal ban against such proceedings, and in New York state, for example,  39% of parents polled recently said they have skipped or reduced meals for themselves or their children as a result of the pandemic.

‘We can’t keep this up’

By late summer, Kaneadsha Jones wasn’t sure where else to turn. She went to a local veterans assistance office, but she said she was told she didn’t meet the criteria for aid, which included having proof that she could pay some of her current expenses.  

“I am a U.S. Army vet, military police officer, and I’m a certified medical assistant with an associate degree in applied science,” Jones said. “I am just so in awe that I can’t find any help.”

Desperate for income, Jones and her husband started delivering groceries, making $8.75 a delivery. They took a job washing and detailing cars for a local dealership, where they were paid $40 per car minus supplies they had to purchase themselves, like car wax and polish. 

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Her children stayed at home during the day, along with several cousins. Jones put two of the oldest, who were 12 and 13, in charge. She checked the law to make sure it was legal to leave them home alone and gave them strict instructions: Don’t open the door. Don’t even ask “Who’s there?” Don’t look out the window. Don’t go outside. 

“We can’t keep this up,” she said as she took a break on a humid, 80-degree August afternoon. In between washing cars, she was constantly calling to check on the children, make sure they were safe and remind them to attend to Kamari. “It’s just not going to work.”

In early September, online school began at the charter schools Jones’ two youngest children attend and at Kamari’s district school. But she couldn’t get the Chromebooks the school sent home to turn on. She drove across town to two separate schools to exchange them, twice. After several weeks and many conversations with tech support, Kamari’s Chromebook would turn on, but wouldn’t let her log in. 

Instead, Jones picked up a small bag of school supplies from Kamari’s school and tried to do hands-on activities with her. She sat with her and helped her feel a book and turn the pages, but lessons were often short-lived, she said.

Requiring her children to concentrate for hours of online school seemed impossible as Jones simultaneously searched for work to keep them fed and housed. Her 12-year-old, Ma’Kaylah, would sometimes fall asleep during long, online class sessions. And she had developed a tic after witnessing the shooting on their street. Her head jerked, “sometimes uncontrollably,” Jones said. 

After an uptick in violent crime on her block, Jones no longer let her kids out to play, even in the backyard, which shares a fence with a nearby apartment complex where Jones has often seen residents drinking outside. She dreamed of moving the family to the country, where they could have land and wouldn’t have to worry about gun violence anymore. Instead, when they could afford the gas, Jones and her husband drove the children out of the neighborhood once a week, to a park where they could play and run around safely. A couple of times they drove an hour northwest to a lake where they could fish and the kids could play at the playground. “It’s just calming,” Jones said. 

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These brief escapes weren’t enough to alleviate her fears about how the pandemic was harming her daughters. Research has found that the stress of poverty, violence and loss can impact children’s brain development, learning, mental health and behavior, something Jones was witnessing firsthand, especially with Ma’Kaylah.

“With all the stress we are going through just to keep food in the house and pay utilities, and just to have the essentials, she can see that,” Jones said. Some days she would duck into the bathroom to cry, hoping her children wouldn’t hear or see her. 

But there were some things she knew she couldn’t hide. “No matter how hard we try to make things as normal as possible and shield the kids from the stress and anxiety my husband and I are facing, it’s not working.”

‘I’m tired of fighting’

On a Thursday morning in late September, the family headed out to pick up food from the girls’ schools, meals that continued to be their main source of nutrition. Jones’ mind was racing with her newest concern: A family member had visited and brought in bedbugs. The family would need to throw out their furniture and somehow find a way to replace it. One of her daughters had the option of going to school in person two days a week, but Jones was concerned she might catch the virus and bring it home.

Jones and her husband had given up on washing cars, which paid so little it didn’t cover the cost of supplies. She estimated she had applied to at least 20 positions in fast food, retail, call centers, grocery stores and gas stations. Despite her education and experience, she was willing to accept almost anything, as long as it felt safe. “I just want to be able to work in an environment that will not expose me to COVID-19,” she said. 

In early October, Jones and her husband picked up extra grocery delivery jobs to make ends meet, but it still wasn’t enough. During the first week of the month, she and her husband didn’t eat for three days so they could ration what food they had for the girls. 

Jones received a letter from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services in response to her appeal for unemployment. It said she wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits at all because she had failed to prove she had been unemployed due to “disruptions caused by COVID-19.”

“I don’t know what else I can tell them,” she said. 

The same week, Jones’ landlord served the family with a new eviction notice. Jones knew the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had halted evictions in early September as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but had been unaware of a form she needed to fill out and submit to her landlord. When she learned about it, she hurried to a local library to print it out, hoping it would buy the family some time. 

Jones’ oldest daughter assured her mother that if they were forced to move out of their home, the children could stay with her. Jones and her husband could sleep in their car. 

In mid-October, the family got their first bit of good news in months. Roulette was hired for a seasonal job working at a distribution center for a large, Columbus-based fashion retailer. He would be making $18.50 an hour, an amount that felt inconceivable after months with no income. It was a welcome bright spot in a tough week: just a few days earlier, the family’s electricity was shut off. Jones had put all her extra money toward the gas bill that month instead. 

Jones felt relieved, but she was still desperate to find a job of her own. On the phone, her voice was weary. “I’m tired of fighting. I’m just trying to live and do what I can do,” Jones said. “It’s such a bureaucracy to get help. Those of us who truly need the help can’t get it.”

This story about poverty was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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