Millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic have fallen thousands of dollars behind on rent and utility bills, a warning sign that people are running out of money for basic needs.
Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody's Analytics warns. Last month, 9 million renters said they were behind on rent, according to a Census Bureau survey.
The numbers were especially high for families with children, with 21% falling behind on rent, and among families of color. About 29% of Black families and 17% of Hispanic renters were behind, the Census Bureau reported. A separate analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, looking at people who had jobs before the pandemic, found 1.3 million such households are now an average of $5,400 in debt on rent and utilities, after those people had lost jobs and their family's income plunged.
Economists said these data points show that the economy surrounding the pandemic is inflicting economic pain that will hurt families for years.
With coronavirus cases at all-time highs, the economic recovery has stalled and job opportunities remain scarce. Only 245,000 jobs came back in November, the slowest pace since the recovery began. Restaurants and retailers cut jobs, and more small businesses are closing, data show.
The 20 million Americans receiving some kind of unemployment aid have seen their weekly checks dwindle since August, making it harder to pay bills. About 12 million unemployed are slated to have their benefits cut off entirely at the end of the year, because lawmakers have yet to agree on extending relief for the unemployed.
"The tidal wave is coming. It's going to be really horrible for people," said Charlie Harak, a senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "The number of people who are now 90 days behind and the dollars they are behind are growing quite significantly."
Nashville mother Nikki Cornwell is $4,000 behind on rent and fears she will be evicted right after Christmas. Her landlord filed the paperwork already, and her court date is set for Jan. 5 — just after the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire.
"I will get evicted soon with my kids who are in virtual school and need internet," said Cornwell, who lives with her mom and two kids. "I've had bad moments, but never anything like this."
Cornwell, 36, lost her job in March at a factory that packages tea. She contracted the coronavirus in May. One fearful night she called 911 because she felt she couldn't breathe. She has mostly recovered but still can't smell anything.
She had a job offer last month, but it was rescinded as coronavirus cases soared and the company decided to pull back on hires.
Cornwell was receiving $275 a week in unemployment, but that just ended. She has pawned jewelry and her son's beloved PlayStation to pay for food.
"This is like a Charles Dickens novel," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association. "It's an evolving story of how people at the bottom are suffering."
Many unemployed Americans were able to delay paying rent this fall under eviction moratoriums. But those protections end soon, and landlords and utilities are eager to get paid. Economists warn low-income families won't be able to suddenly pay back three to six months of rent.
The federal eviction moratorium is slated to end on Dec. 31, even as coronavirus cases spike and the economic recovery fizzles. Researchers at the Philadelphia Fed said even their conservative forecast warns evictions will spike 50% higher next year.
Amid those pressures, renters and landlords are urging Congress to approve bigger unemployment payments and another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, which would go a long way toward helping alleviate the debt burden on the unemployed.
"The longer employment stays suppressed, and people stay out of work, it will make it even harder to catch up on the debt and dig yourself out of that hole," said Davin Reed, community development economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.