The poor have been hard hit by Covid-19. Now inflation is pushing some to the brink.
Manuel Jeremías Ake’s rent on his one-bedroom apartment in Inglewood, Calif., has gone up nearly $500 since the coronavirus pandemic began. He lives there with his wife and their six children.
“I told my landlords I couldn’t do it, that I’d be working just to pay the rent,” he said. “Do you know what they told me? They said, ‘If you can’t pay, then you have to look for somewhere else to live.’ What does a person do when he hears that? With six kids? Where am I going to go?”
Mr. Ake’s eldest child is 16 and he has 3-year-old twins. His 9-year-old daughter has autism. His wife stays home with the kids, and Mr. Ake works at a dry cleaner.
According to The Associated Press, consumer prices have gone up by 6.8 percent over the last 12 months, a 39-year-high. This level of inflation is expected to continue for the next few months but may eventually come down. That is of little comfort to low-income families like Mr. Ake’s.
“All the prices are ridiculously high,” he said. “We were struggling to buy what we could afford. But now, forget about it. I’ve never seen anything like this in this country.”
One low-income workers says: “All the prices are ridiculously high. We were struggling to buy what we could afford. But now, forget about it. I’ve never seen anything like this in this country.”
During the pandemic, workers who used to frequently bring clothes to dry cleaners began working from home, and business at the dry cleaner’s fell accordingly. Mr. Ake’s company laid off half the staff. He kept his job but was reduced from six to three days a week. He has less money, and all of the family expenses have gone up significantly.
An undocumented worker originally from Mexico, Mr. Ake has lived in the United States for 32 years, and all of his children are U.S. citizens. A dentist recently told him his eldest children need braces at a cost of about $10,000, procedures that will not be covered by California’s Medicaid program.
“‘Dad, what are you going to do?’” his eldest son asked him. “I tell him I don’t know. What am I going to do? How am I supposed to get ahold of $10,000? How?”
In the meantime, his children can see their teeth growing more crooked. Sometimes his children cry about it, he said. Sometimes he cries too.
“Sometimes I can’t take it,” he said tearfully.
Mr. Ake found some support at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles’ St. Margaret’s Center. Staff there helped him apply for government aid for rent and utilities and will help him address his legal status. The center is also providing some gifts for the family this Christmas.
Inflation has been a challenge for low-income families, especially during the pandemic, according to Mary Agnes Erlandson, the director of St. Margaret’s.
The working-class people St. Margaret’s serves did not have the kind of jobs that allowed them to work remotely during Covid. The pandemic meant a significant income cut.
The working-class people St. Margaret’s serves did not have the kind of jobs that allowed them to work remotely during Covid, she said. The pandemic meant a significant income cut. “The combination of the rising prices and the uncertainty of what will happen with government support for rent and utilities has been really, really difficult,” Ms. Erlandson said.
And when a family member gets Covid-19, especially the breadwinner, it gets even more difficult. Ms. Erlandson pointed out a single mother recently diagnosed with Covid-19 whom the center is trying to help.
“It’s hard for all parents, but especially for low-income families where one parent works,” she said. Programs like the federal child tax credit and the state assistance E.B.T. card help.
Southern California families are also turning to local food banks more often to help them get through. Tom Hoffarth, who runs the food pantry at the St. Robert’s Center in Venice, said it has been a challenge to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Organizations that donate food to the center tell him the diminishing availability of fresh produce is connected to supply chain issues.
Southern California families are turning to local food banks more often to help them get through.
“We can’t know week to week the kind of stuff that we’re getting. Sometimes we’re getting watermelons and apples and then the next week we’re getting pears, and it’s usually the kind of fruits that are not the best looking,” he said. “We get tomatoes with a few days left, bananas turning brown, so you have to use them right away.”
It is important to provide healthy, low-sugar options, Mr. Hoffarth said, because many of St. Robert’s clients are diabetic. In addition to trying to find fresh produce, he also mentioned hard-boiled eggs and string cheese. St. Robert’s provides food for the homeless on the weekend and helps low-income families, usually single mothers, with take-home meals during the week.
“They don’t want canned peas or canned corn,” Mr. Hoffarth said of his people he serves, many of whom are single mothers. “You can’t give away canned produce because it’s not part of what they’re used to. They want anything fresh, even if they have to use it right away.”
He tries to be resourceful with what he buys and collects because he knows that families use any grocery money they save to pay rent and utilities. Volunteers also help provide items for clients through an Amazon gift list.
“I notice it when I go to the grocery store, and I’m buying food for one person. I think, ‘How did I spend that much money?’”
Judy Yerian, a board member at St. Mary’s Place, said the need in her community has actually decreased significantly over the last 12 months since many people have been able to get back to work after enduring job losses and layoffs in the early months of the pandemic. Last year, they were serving 300 to 400 families a week, and now it is down to about 100. They gave turkeys to 200 families this Thanksgiving.
Despite this lower caseload, “higher prices have been a heavier burden on our clients and a heavier burden to our generous contributors,” Ms. Yerian said. “I notice it when I go to the grocery store, and I’m buying food for one person. I think, ‘How did I spend that much money?’”
Some weeks, after volunteers pack the food boxes, the pantry is bare. They try to include at least one box of cereal in every food box but that has not always been possible of late. While she commended generous donors, Ms. Yerian said, with the higher prices things could get more difficult in the New Year.
“What the community and the parishioners are giving us may not be as much,” she said, “because, let’s be honest, their dollar isn’t going to go as far.”