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In addition to the spread of COVID-19, the city’s most vulnerable residents are facing an economic crisis.

It was like the tap had shut off for Lamar Mickens. When stay-at-home orders in the spring led businesses to shut down and left many people out of work, Mickens and his wife, who run an in-home child care center in midtown Kansas City, suddenly found themselves without any business. 

“When that income is gone, it’s a matter of, you’re in survival mode,” he said. “So the first impact is the economic one. The second one is a physical presence, which is, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to pay our rent, the lights will get shut off, what are they gonna get first? The water, the gas, the phones?’”

The most recent data available shows that about 87,000 people across Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, have found themselves in Mickens’ shoes: Out of work and out of money in the middle of a worsening global health crisis. 

Unemployment in Kansas and Missouri has not reached the same peaks seen in March and April. But now six months into the crisis, the number of new unemployment claims is still higher than it was in the first few months of 2020. The latest figures put the unemployment rate in Missouri at 7.1% for August, and according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, an estimated 215,249 people were unemployed in August. According to the latest data from the Kansas Department of Labor, 106,798 people were unemployed in July; the unemployment rate was 7.2%.

Although workers in Kansas and Missouri saw some relief — a one-time $1,200 federal stimulus check and $600 per week in additional unemployment assistance from each state — those forms of assistance have since run out or expired. Many now fear that a lack of protections will lead to an acceleration of joblessness, evictions and financial instability, which could leave Kansas Citians staring down the precipice of poverty.

For the city’s most marginalized communities, the pandemic’s economic impact is exacerbated, said Gina Chiala, executive director and staff attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, a workers rights advocacy organization in Kansas City.

“It’s always traumatic and always unacceptable for people to be put out on the streets without housing,” Chiala said. 

“But then during a pandemic, the consequences of that are made so much more severe. And it affects all of us because it contributes to the virus spread, and it contributes to the financial collapse. The more people who sink into poverty, the harder it is for everyone to be able to recover.”

‘Digging an even deeper hole’

The first wave of stay-at-home orders came while Bridget Hughes was working full-time at a local Burger King. 

But with school moving online and her three children at home, Hughes cut back her hours. When the store attempted to increase her hours, she couldn’t do it. Then Hughes found out about a possible COVID-19 exposure a week later, forcing her into a 14-day quarantine — all unpaid.  

Hughes cannot afford to hire a caretaker for her children, so child care duties are divided between her and her husband, who works at night and watches the kids during the day. Toward the end of May, after difficulties with management, Hughes left Burger King and took a job at a call center that paid $2 less per hour. The pay wasn’t enough. 

“I didn’t have a choice but to continue working part-time at McDonald’s as well, just to compensate for my income and make sure we could at least stay afloat,” Hughes said. 

Continuous scares of COVID-19 exposure at both workplaces — coupled with the looming anxiety of more unpaid quarantine — led Hughes to transfer to another McDonald’s location. Hughes also faced the tough decision of sending her oldest child, who is autistic, back to school this fall. Because Hughes works during the day, she isn’t able to be with him and provide the teaching he needs.  

“I don’t have a choice but to send him to school,” she said. “But then that’s going to give me a constant fear that my son’s going to come home sick.”

Low-wage workers like Hughes have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and the precariousness of her employment — working one week and losing income the next — has made it difficult to find any stability. Without adequate, consistent pay, Hughes has fallen behind on her rent.

“It’s really hard to catch up,” she said. “We struggle with everything, from food for the kids, to shoes, clothes. I don’t have health care. And I’m diabetic, which is terribly concerning because I’m in the high risk group, but I don’t have the option to quarantine.”

Hughes has been a member of Stand Up KC, a grassroots group that advocates for the rights of low-wage fast-food and retail workers, since 2014. Even before the pandemic, she said, workers like her needed health care, paid time off, a $15 minimum wage and access to other workplace benefits. Now, she says the crises of the pandemic are further underscoring these issues.

“It’s basically taking a really bad problem and digging an even deeper hole,” Hughes said. “I was already dealing with this stuff, and now adding this fear that myself or my kids could get sick is even worse.”

Economic crises, unequally distributed

In addition to being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, Black and Latinx residents in the Kansas City metro are also the ones hardest hit by job cuts triggered by the pandemic. 

According to an analysis in The New York Times comparing unemployment rates from February to June, areas east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, where neighborhoods are predominantly Black, are seeing unemployment rates higher than 10%, with some census tracts seeing rates surpassing 20%. In Wyandotte County, home to a large Latinx population, unemployment ranges from 10% to 26%. To compare, the unemployment rate in midtown Kansas City has stayed below 10%. 

Mathew Forstater, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said historically disadvantaged communities often bear the burdens of unemployment, poverty and other economic hardships.

“We’re asking the African American community to bear a disproportionate weight of our economic crises,” Forstater said. “It’s as simple as that.”

But official unemployment rates do not represent the full breadth of people out of work, including the underemployed, Forstater said. 

“There are millions and millions of people who say they want and need to be working, but for a variety of reasons are not included in the official unemployment rate,” Forstater said.

Recognizing the ‘humanity in each other’

After losing their primary gigs in acting and serving as a standardized patient, which involves acting as a patient to assist medical professionals in training, Casye Davidson fell behind on rent — the extra $600 per week in pandemic unemployment benefits provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a lifeline.   

Casye Davidson in her Hyde Park apartment.

“I definitely would not have had enough money coming in weekly to take care of all of my general bills, cost of living expenses, without that $600 a week,” they said. 

When the extra $600 per week expired, the Trump administration authorized a new wave of unemployment benefits through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under the Lost Wages Assistance program, people who qualify for unemployment benefits can receive an extra $300 a week for six weeks.

Missouri has distributed $230 million in federal aid to those who qualify for jobless benefits. According to a Sept. 11 news release from the Missouri Department of Labor, funding for the program has expired, and the extra $300 in weekly unemployment benefits will be paid through the week ending Sept. 5. 

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelley recently announced the state will get $63 million from FEMA to provide weekly $300 payments to eligible Kansans. The Kansas Department of Labor estimates that people will begin receiving these benefits “no sooner than late September.”

The Trump administration also announced a new federal eviction moratorium from September to the end of the year. The moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention applies to renters who have experienced a substantial loss in income that impacts their ability to pay rent. To qualify, tenants must fill out a form from the CDC and give it to their landlord. The policy, however, does not relieve tenants from paying rent. 

Outside policy, local communities have created grassroots mutual aid networks to care for those in need. Bailey Walton of Kansas City, Missouri, oversees one such group on Facebook. With over 2,000 members so far, the group has been an open forum for Kansas Citians to ask for help during this pandemic. 

Whether it’s asking for help to pay bills or buy groceries, Walton said she’s seen members of the group come together to support each other. 

“I think with coronavirus, a lot of people found themselves in the same position,” Walton said. “Solidarity is like, how can we recognize the humanity in each other and then work with each other?”

Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media

Celisa Calacal is assistant editor at The Beacon, where she works with reporters on their stories, oversees social media and still gets to write.