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How COVID-19 is exacerbating Detroit’s poverty and racial inequality

Low-income Americans are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. Detroit, a city already facing steep economic and racial inequalities, has emerged as a virus hot spot. John Yang reports and talks to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Darienne Hudson about families struggling to fulfill their basic needs and access vital information about the pandemic, as well as how nonprofits are being affected.





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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn our attention now to the low-income Americans who are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus fallout.

    John Yang explains how the pandemic is hitting hard families who are already struggling.

    This reporting is part of Chasing the Dream, our ongoing coverage of poverty and opportunity in America.

  • John Yang:

    Detroit, already facing steep economic and racial inequalities, has emerged as a coronavirus hot spot.

    Janine Cain is a mother of five on the city's East Side.

  • Janine Cain:

    My husband actually was laid off immediately as soon as the pandemic started, because he works in a restaurant. And I was working two jobs, and I was laid off from my second job.

  • John Yang:

    Cain's worried whether she will be able to keep her job as a home health care worker, the family's only remaining source of income.

  • Janine Cain:

    We are going to still have to operate as if we have the bare minimum.

  • John Yang:

    She is also concerned about her family's safety as tensions run high their neighborhood.

  • Janine Cain:

    The neighbors have been fighting each other. It has not been easy to, you know, just explain to the children that a lot of people are coping with this pandemic in different ways.

  • John Yang:

    The Downtown Boxing Gym, a local after school program, delivers food and supplies twice a week. Now it's become a full-time crisis relief program for the entire community.

  • Janine Cain:

    If it weren't for the Boxing Gym, I'd probably be in tears every day trying to figure out how we're going to eat or get supplies.

  • John Yang:

    Both emotional and economic support are needed, says the head of the gym, Jessica Hauser.

  • Jessica Hauser:

    It's pretty terrifying for just about every family that we're working with. And they're trying so hard to keep their kids in a good place and stable and not worry their kids, while their entire life is falling apart.

  • John Yang:

    The Cain children still gather for the gym's nightly workout sessions, but now they're held over Zoom.

  • Jessica Hauser:

    It gives them a moment to connect with all their — you know, their friends and peers and see that everybody's OK and healthy.

  • John Yang:

    Missing from those nightly check-ins, some of their peers who don't have home Internet or computers.

    In Los Angeles, families pick up meals outside shuttered public schools.

    Lisette Bonilla says every day is a struggle.

  • Lisette Bonilla (through translator):

    This happened from one day to the other. I'm not prepared. And it's scary, because we don't know how long it's going to last.

  • John Yang:

    Meanwhile, bills are piling up.

    Maria Jorge is the mother of three.

  • Maria Jorge (through translator):

    I'm cutting my spending as much as possible, because I have to pay rent, bills, and with everything that's going on.

  • John Yang:

    Not knowing how long the crisis could last adds stress for families and for the schools the children had been attending.

    Austin Beutner is the superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District.

  • Austin Beutner:

    When we started, we said it's two weeks and that we will share more as we know what the path forward is.

  • John Yang:

    In Detroit, Janine Cain is struggling to provide a sense of normalcy for her family, as the effects of the virus get closer and closer.

  • Janine Cain:

    People in the neighborhood are coming up saying, oh, I just lost a cousin. I got a few co-workers that actually lost some of their relatives to it.

  • John Yang:

    She doesn't know how long will her family be able to endure their new reality.

  • Janine Cain:

    I'm also hoping that this won't last long, and so that we don't have to lose our jobs, without — I don't know what the backup plan is.

  • John Yang:

    Even before the pandemic, estimates were that 44 percent of the households in southeastern Michigan could not meet their most basic needs.

    In the city of Detroit itself, that figure is even higher, 74 percent.

    Darienne Hudson is CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan. And she joins us by Skype.

    Darienne, thanks so much for being with us.

    We heard in the tape sort of a snapshot of one family in Detroit, what's going on in their household.

    Give us the bigger picture. What is it like for people on the ground in Southeastern Michigan right now?

  • Darienne Hudson:

    Well, thank you for having me here.

    This is a time of great uncertainty, frustration. I would say that there is an overload of information, and yet you still have thousands of people who don't know how to access it.

    The numbers that you were just sharing are from our call center 211, and we have received over 20,000 calls just this last month, based on the pandemic. But the main call that we are still getting is for food.

    So, in spite of all the things we're hearing about the public health crisis, it is still those most basic needs that people are trying to attain.

  • John Yang:

    So it's still the basic problems they were having before this pandemic?

  • Darienne Hudson:


    This pandemic has magnified the problems that people were already having, whether it's utility assistance, rental assistance, trying to attain and sustain gainful employment. Now many people are out of work, and it's just exacerbated the problems we have had.

  • John Yang:

    And to what extent is this sort of — sort of — you say it's exacerbating the problem.

    Is it sort of building on them? Is it exposing problems that already were there? How does this compounding — putting this health crisis on top of this — ongoing economic problems in these communities, how is that affecting it?

  • Darienne Hudson:

    Sure, in a few ways.

    One, I will give you the example of the digital divide that we're seeing in our schools. Now that our schools are closed through the end of the year, it's revealing just how many families are without Internet access. Detroit is one of the least connected cities in the country.

    In terms of health disparities, African-Americans, we are 14 percent of the state of Michigan, but we are 41 percent of the deaths that have happened from COVID-19.

    And so, when you compound poverty, when you compound systemic racism, and then you're looking at what's happening with the pandemic, it is — it's not a surprise, unfortunately, that these are happening, these things are happening for us.

  • John Yang:

    And this pandemic, how is it affecting the United Way groups that you work with, the organizations that you work with? How is it affecting their ability to deliver services?

  • Darienne Hudson:

    Nonprofit organizations, governmental entities have been deeply impacted, based on this pandemic.

    We have actually galvanized with our corporate and philanthropic community to raise over $8 million to help provide operational grants for many of our nonprofits. Now we have funded over 220 in our community.

    But there are many people who are still on the front lines providing food, providing shelter, providing resources for the community, in spite of this setback. But the world as we know it in terms of nonprofits is going to be forever changed as a result of this pandemic, for the main reason that many of their fund-raisers have been canceled now.

    Much of their work is service-based. It's fee-for-service. It's face-to-face. Now they're having to change to virtual means to be able to deliver those services. So, the landscape has changed drastically. We're galvanizing and working together in ways that we never have before.

    But the needs are just continuing to grow. They are not going away.

  • John Yang:

    As you think about the people who rely on the services provided by organizations under the United Way umbrella, what is your greatest concern? What keeps you up at night?

  • Darienne Hudson:

    My greatest concern really is access.

    There are still too many people who don't have some of the most basic of Internet services. They don't have telephones. They don't have transportation.

    So, even with, you know, hundreds of food distribution sites set up around the city, with all of our testing sites that we have around the city of Detroit now, access to those resources is still a challenge.

    Many of our nonprofits deliver face-to-face services. We are all having to adapt to the way we provide those services. And so knowing that there are still just thousands of people who can't access any of the resources that we're pulling together on their behalf at this time is very unsettling.

    I will say, it's why we fight. It is why we get up in the morning to continue to do the good work. So, as long as United Way is standing, we will continue to fight for those who do not — not have at this time.

  • John Yang:

    Darienne Hudson, CEO of the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, thank you very much.

  • Darienne Hudson:

    Thank you, John. It's nice to meet you.

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