RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As the pandemic lingers, many Americans have fallen behind and are feeling anxious. That's the takeaway from a new poll out this morning from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin's been sorting through the results, and she joins us now. Hey, Selena.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So this poll's going to hit a lot of us close to home.
MARTIN: What does it mean to say Americans are behind? Behind on what?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, they're behind on rent, on their credit cards. Kids, as we all know, have fallen behind in school. Patients haven't been able to get health care. And Americans are also on edge. A lot of people feel personally threatened or fearful of being attacked, or they're depressed and can't sleep.
MARTIN: Wow. So we're going to dig into some of that. But first, this poll, we should say, is following up on one that was done around the same time last year, right?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, exactly. Robert Blendon, who's an emeritus professor in health policy at Harvard's Chan School, led both polls, and he says this one was supposed to show something else.
ROBERT BLENDON: This poll was geared for the period after COVID was over - America was opening up, going back.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, that is not what happened. Delta came along. Vaccinations dropped off. So instead, some people, especially higher-income people, are doing OK, starting to get back to normal. But for others, normal is a long way off.
BLENDON: And also, our poll ended right when people lost their unemployment, and they lost the CDC protection for not losing your rental property.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So there he's talking about the end of the eviction moratorium.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The survey was done from the beginning of August until the beginning of September. About 3,600 people were surveyed. And to learn some of the stories behind the findings and to get updates on how people are doing now, I called some of the respondents back.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I'm following up on a survey that you took a few weeks ago about delta and COVID in American households.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: You remember that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I do.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For a lot of the people I reached, it seems like the pandemic took the jar of their lives and shook up the contents.
LUZ MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Everything was fine until the pandemic hit, and then it was, like, my world, so to speak, turned upside down overnight.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Luz Maria Rodriguez. She's 67 and lives in Houston. 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, she spent all of her savings. Nearly 1 in 5 households are in the same boat; they lost all of their savings during the pandemic and have nothing left to fall back on.
RODRIGUEZ: Things have started crumbling down. I mean, behind on utilities and credit cards.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And her rent has been tough to make with her son's salary and her Social Security. One in four renters, nationally, said they had trouble making rent in the last few months. In Houston, more than half had trouble. Rodriguez ended up going to food banks for the first time in her life.
RODRIGUEZ: There was nights I couldn't sleep. I don't know. I was just - it was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: A lot of Americans are lying in bed, anxious, unable to sleep. In the poll, someone in half of households had serious problems with depression or sleep or stress in the last few months. I also reached Brittany Mitchell.
BRITTANY MITCHELL: I live in Gaston, S.C. And I am a full-time cake decorator at our local Food Lion grocery store.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She and her family were weathering the pandemic OK until this past June. Her husband is a butcher.
MITCHELL: They started cutting hours, and then after a while, they started cutting staff. And he just happened to be one of the staff members that they let go. There was a good two months where we really could not - we couldn't pay rent. We couldn't pay electric. We couldn't pay for our internet or anything like that.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In the poll, 38% of households had serious financial problems in the last few months. For households making under $50,000 a year, roughly 60% had serious problems. Mitchell was able to enroll in rental assistance. She said her landlord was very understanding. And her husband was able to get a new job. But now they're behind on utility and car payments, and she says from her vantage point, it just seems like people are on edge.
MITCHELL: It's getting to the point where people are starting arguments in the grocery store, yelling at each other, and they're fighting over toilet paper again. And I watched two old women have the biggest argument over a can of collard greens, the last can - the biggest argument I've ever seen in my life over some collard greens. I mean, I think it's going to get a lot worse before it does get better.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: For some people, that sense of being on edge connects to personal safety. One in four Asian American households said they recently feared being threatened or physically attacked. Nearly as many Black and Native Americans felt the same way. Harry Ting lives outside of Los Angeles. He emigrated from Taiwan when he was 11 years old, and he's a naturalized citizen.
HARRY TING: Personally, actually, I identify myself as very American, and, you know, I'm kind of proud of that.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In March 2020, he drove to a Best Buy and got some suspicious looks. When he got back to his car, it had been keyed. Even now, planning a trip to Utah with his wife and kids and in-laws, he found himself worrying and talking to his family before they left.
TING: I don't want us to be communicating Chinese very loudly and laughing and people be staring at us because I just don't want unwanted attention. And I've never, ever felt like I had to do that until this year.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: There are still more ways in which Americans have fallen behind. Nearly 1 in 5 households say someone in the family had to delay medical care in the last few months, and nearly 70% of households with school-aged children say their kids fell behind with their learning last year. Will Walsh in Radford, Va., home-schooled his son last year in eighth grade. He said he and his wife just had trouble getting the hang of it. And this year...
WILL WALSH: We were worried. You know, he's starting ninth grade. You know, he's going back to school. Did he fall behind?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But things are looking up. His son is in person in high school now, getting good grades, and Walsh is hopeful the delta outbreak is on the way out.
WALSH: We're looking, for the first time, having my entire family here for Christmas. And if we can do that, that'd be a wonderful thing.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: If we can do that - so hopeful that things are heading back towards normal but aware that there's still a lot of uncertainty about what's in store.
MARTIN: I mean, I appreciate that you tried to end this piece on an up note, Selena, but so much of what comes out of this poll is just really sobering.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, it's true. And it's striking because the country's leaders knew how difficult and disruptive the pandemic would be and passed trillions in funding, and Robert Blendon from Harvard points out 2 out of every 3 households said they were getting federal assistance.
BLENDON: So what does that really say? It says that for people in the bottom of income, the federal assistance that they're getting or can get is not providing a floor for them.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: We're now in a key moment. Congress is working on a new package to enact some key parts of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda. These results show people still need to just get back to baseline.
MARTIN: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin on NPR's new survey out today of American households and the delta outbreak. Selena, thanks.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.