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NPR poll: The delta surge pushed Americans further behind in all walks of life

Americans have fallen way behind.

The rent's overdue and evictions are looming. Two-thirds of parents say their kids have fallen behind in school. And one in five households say someone in the home has been unable to get medical care for a serious condition.

These are some of the main takeaways from a new national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Despite billions of dollars in relief money from federal and state governments, "what we have here is a lot of people who are still one step from drowning financially," says Robert Blendon, emeritus professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School.

Thirty-eight percent of households across the nation report facing serious financial problems in the past few months. Among Latino, Black and Native American households, more than 50% had serious financial problems, while 29% of white households did. This disparity is echoed in many other poll findings, with the minority families bearing a disproportionate share of the pandemics' socio-economic impact.

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Brittany Mitchell's family is among those that are struggling. She lives in Gaston, S.C. and she's a full-time cake decorator at the local Food Lion grocery store — her husband is a butcher. They were weathering the pandemic well enough, until her husband lost his job.

"There was a good two months where we really couldn't pay rent, we couldn't pay electric, we couldn't pay for our internet," she says. "We were basically borrowing from friends and family members just to make ends meet."

Mitchell was able to enroll in rental assistance, and she says her landlord was very understanding. Her husband got a new job, but now they're behind on utility and car payments.

"We're still struggling real hard just to get through," she says.

A sharp income divide

The poll showed a sharp income divide, with 59% of those with annual incomes below $50,000 reporting serious financial problems in the past few months, compared with 18% of households with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

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All this, despite the fact that around two-thirds of households report that they have received financial assistance from the government in the past few months during the delta variant surge.

It appears that the funding from COVID-19 relief bills, Blendon says, "did not provide a floor to protect people who are of moderate and low incomes."

Add to that, Americans are draining their savings accounts: 19% of U.S. households report losing all of their savings during the COVID-19 crisis and currently having no savings to fall back on.

The financial blow is more stark for Black households: 31% reported losing all their savings. And among Latino and Native American families, just over a quarter of households report they depleted their savings.

There was also a clear income divide, with those making less than $50,000 a year being far more likely to have lost all their savings than the more affluent.

"You have a group of people who are facing changes in their life without any savings," Blendon says.

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Renters struggle with payments

From this financial distress, other problems grow. At the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction ban expired at the end of August, 27% of renters nationally reported serious problems paying their rent in the past few months.

Our poll looked in depth at the four largest U.S. cities and found that Houston's rent crisis was far and away the worst, with 53% of Houston renters reporting trouble paying rent.

One Houston renter who's been struggling is Luz Maria Rodriguez.

"Everything was fine until the pandemic hit," she says. "It was like my world turned upside down overnight."

She's 67 years old and semi-retired. Last summer, her brother died of a stroke — and she ended up needing to move into a new apartment with her son. With expensive car repairs and the costs of the move, the new rent payment has been tough to make on her son's salary and her social security payments.

She got behind on utilities and her credit cards and ended up going to food banks for the first time in her life.

"There were nights I couldn't sleep," she says. "It was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles."

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A decline in mental and social well-being

The strain that the pandemic put on Americans' day to day lives is having serious repercussions. A lot of Americans are struggling with anxiety and sleeplessness: Half of households report at least one person in the home has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months.

Then there's the by-now familiar story of kids and school. More than two-thirds of American households with children in K-12 last school year said their children fell behind in their learning because of the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 36% who said children "fell behind a lot."

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Will Walsh and his wife in Radford, Va. homeschooled their son in eighth grade last year. He says he and his wife just had trouble getting the hang of teaching. "And for that reason, I think he fell behind," he says.

This year, his son is back in the classroom. "We were worried," he says. "But he's about to finish up his first semester and he's an A, B student — so maybe me and my wife did better than we thought."

In the poll, most parents weren't confident their kids would quickly bounce back. Thinking about the upcoming school year, 70% of households whose children fell behind last school year believe it will be difficult for children in their household to catch up on education losses from last school year.

Our poll also looked at other areas of decline in social well-being. The stand-out finding: A quarter of Asian American adults say that in the past few months they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them or members of their household because of their race/ethnicity. The proportion of Native Americans fearing threats and attacks was 22%, and for Black households it was 21%.

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To put that into context, the most recent report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed hate crimes in the U.S. are on the rise, increasing 6% in 2020 over 2019 levels.

Harry Ting immigrated from Taiwan when he was 11 years old and he's a naturalized citizen, who personally identifies as "very American," he says.

He lives outside Los Angeles. In March 2020, his car was keyed while he was in a Best Buy.

"That incident – that was the very first time where I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I have kids, I have family, my wife is from Taiwan and I'm fearful for them,' " he says.

That fear hasn't gone away. Recently, planning a trip to Utah with his wife and kids and in-laws over Labor Day, he found himself worrying, and talking his family before they left.

"I don't want us to be communicating in Chinese very loudly and laughing, because I don't want unwanted attention," he told them. "I've never ever felt like I had to do that until this year."

When it comes to health and health care, the prolonged pandemic has also aggravated problems for people with serious medical conditions. Our poll found that among the 1 in 5 households reporting a problem getting care for a serious medical condition, 76% of those reported that there was a negative health consequence as a result.

Health insurance was a problem for some of these people, but certainly not all: Among households unable to get care when they needed it, 78% report having health insurance, while 22% report not having health insurance.

Harvard's Blendon says the numbers of people delaying care "were much greater than we expected," due in large part to the delta variant.

"This is the United States," Blendon tells reporter James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio. "You don't expect people with serious illnesses to say they cannot be seen for care."

This poll was conducted August 2 – September 7, 2021, among a probability-based, address-based, nationally representative sample of 3,616 U.S. adults ages 18 or older. Interviews were conducted in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese according to respondents' preferences. The margin of error at the 95% confidence interval is ± 3.4 percentage points for national results. Read the poll results in detail here.

NPR reporters will dive more deeply into these and other findings from our poll during the coming weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.