Some families need to save money to pay for pandemic-related expenses like tests and masks: NPR

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High-quality face masks and home COVID testing provide additional protection against the coronavirus. But this can come at a high cost for some people.



ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Masks and home COVID tests have become staples of pandemic life, providing additional protection against the coronavirus. But this protection also represents an additional cost, sometimes a high cost for people whose family budget was not so important in the beginning, like Gerry Dodge, 63 years old.

GERRY DODGE: Just like the truck.

SHAPIRO: Dodge lives in Michigan and she retired from her retail job at the start of the pandemic. His health issues made going out in public too risky. Using high-quality masks is important to her, so Dodge has saved money to afford them. She does less laundry, spends more time looking for cheap food, and still struggles to make ends meet.

DODGE: I deferred my electric bill, which is outrageous this time, to buy KN95 masks.

SHAPIRO: Free N95 respirators are starting to be available for pickup at select pharmacies and grocery stores across the country. Each person is allowed three.

DODGE: When I heard, I was just like, oh, well, thank you (laughs). It won’t last long, but I appreciate the effort.

SHAPIRO: Three free masks won’t last long in Takisha Moore’s house either.

TAKISHA MOORE: We could go through a box of masks in four to five school days.

SHAPIRO: Moore lives in North Carolina. She is a single mother of six children, three go to school in person and one has health conditions that put her at higher risk for COVID. Whatever extra money Takisha makes, he buys masks, cleaning supplies and COVID tests.

MOORE: I was able to get the tests we needed, but it cost me almost $300.

SHAPIRO: Moore says things are only getting tighter.

MOORE: Now that we’re in the pandemic, the cost of groceries is going up. You know, all of our utilities have gone up in the last two weeks. So I have to be very careful and work on my budget regularly.

SHAPIRO: We wanted to understand how pandemic-related spending on things like masks and testing is affecting households across the country. So my co-host Ailsa Chang sat down with Wendy Edelberg, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. It studies household spending and savings decisions.

WENDY EDELBERG: The challenges created by the pandemic are so many.

SHAPIRO: They started with what Edelberg thinks when she hears about people like Takisha Moore or Gerry Dodge.

EDELBERG: I think it’s important to differentiate why we might worry about the overall economy and why it’s entirely appropriate for us to worry about individual households that aid hasn’t reached. So first, thinking about the overall – overall people seem to be doing better than before the pandemic.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Interesting.

EDELBERG: Credit card debt is down. The amount of money people were able to accumulate and save compared to what they were able to make before the pandemic is over. But there are some really important caveats there. The first is that just because people are doing better than before the pandemic doesn’t mean they are doing well. Many people entered the pandemic with very thin savings margins and very low or even negative wealth. And for these people, putting even a little pressure on their financial situation is going to make life difficult for them. So it’s not that I’m worried about the economy as a whole. I worry about who the fiscal support hasn’t reached, and I worry about who the labor market recovery isn’t reaching.

CHANG: That’s right. And as you mentioned, these extra expenses aren’t just financial, are they? It is also an expense in terms of time. People sometimes spend hours looking for masks or queuing for free test kits to take home. Can you just walk us through how the cost of time plays out for families of different income levels here?

EDELBERG: Yeah. For people with a lot of financial means, if they wish, they can avoid this time tax. I mean, heck, you can pay to have someone come to your house and give you a COVID test and give you the results of, say, a high-quality test in hours, not days.

Chang: Yeah.

EDELBERG: But for someone else who would have real financial reach, they also might not have time to stand in line for three hours in the cold with their children to take this test, and then, plus, probably to wait days for those test results. And so there are people who can avoid time tax by spending a lot of money. There are people who might rather spend their time doing other things but at least have time to be able to comb through neighborhood mailing lists to figure out which store just got masks. And then there are the people who don’t have the time or the money, and it’s for them that we have to worry the most.

CHANG: Well, the Biden administration, of course, is sending free tests to households, distributing a limited number of N95 masks in pharmacies. Let me ask you, are these government policies too little, too late at this point to tackle the debt that people are accumulating from buying these items on their own so far?

EDELBERG: It’s definitely a step in the right direction. I’m afraid it’s too little, too late for people who need a steady supply of new, high-quality masks week after week. Getting a few masks is good, but it doesn’t reach them where their life is. And likewise, receiving four tests in the mail is not enough. But I think our recovery will continue to get muddled overall even if households have to spend, you know, $25 a week that they’d much rather spend on something else or they have to dip into their savings or borrow on their credit cards. Like, it’s a problem, but it’s not going to derail our recovery.

CHANG: Well, what kind of government policies would you like to see at this point in the pandemic to help families who are spending money and time getting things like masks or home testing kits?

EDELBERG: I think it’s similar to the arc of being able to get vaccinated. It’s much easier to get vaccinated now than it was in the first two months when vaccines were first rolled out. And it was a political failure. By now we have, for the most part, figured out how to make vaccines available to anyone who wants them. It has taken us, as a country, a frustrating time to resolve this issue. I guess policy makers are working very hard on testing and the mask availability issue. And in a few months, we will also be able to get tested as we wish and the masks will no longer be available. But it was a somewhat predictable problem.

CHANG: I guess I’m still puzzled as to why it seems like the administration figured out access to vaccines faster than they figured out access to masking and testing, which you would have thought would have happened much earlier than access to vaccines.

EDELBERG: I think policymakers have been focused on solving access to vaccines, and I think it’s hard to focus on more than one thing. So they focused on access to vaccines, and I think they dropped the ball on making sure we had easy access to masks and testing. And they are now trying to catch up.

Chang: Exactly. This is Wendy Edelberg, Senior Research Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much for joining us.

EDELBERG: You’re welcome. It’s good to talk to you.

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