A Debt Pandemic: Many DFW members are struggling with the debts they incurred to weather the financial storm of COVID
Darlington Okopu’s number one priority has always been taking care of his teenage twins. Originally from Ghana, he lived in North Texas for the better part of a decade. And he built a good, stable life for his family before the pandemic, working as an auto parts assembler in Arlington.
Okopu says he has started to feel the impact of the pandemic at work.
“People weren’t coming. You ask about them. “Hey, he got infected,” he recalls. “Then you hear that someone died. So it got very scary.
Then, working hours were reduced and shifts were staggered. In no time, he says the warehouse closed.
After being furloughed, Okopu was not eligible for unemployment due to his immigration status. He had obtained his green card shortly before the pandemic and had not worked long enough to qualify for Texas Workforce Commission benefits. As other pandemic aid was approved by the federal government, it found much of it also out of reach.
Although he soon found another job, it wasn’t always full-time, and he began racking up credit card debt to stay afloat.
“It was very tough, very tough,” he said. “And it came at a time when I only chose three things in my life: how to get money to pay my rent, to pay my electric bill, to run my car. That’s what who will look after my children for me.
“A lot of things have struck in our community”
Okopu managed to keep her children housed and fed and the lights on. He avoided having his car repossessed, which allowed him to continue working. But it cost him: In total, Okopu says he racked up about $18,000 in credit card debt.
Overall, Americans paid off credit card balances in the first year of the pandemic, flushed with stimulus payments and unable to spend on restaurants and vacations. But amid that average decline, 30% of credit card holders saw their balances increase, particularly parents of children under 18, millennials and low-wage workers.
Navigating the pandemic was stressful and Okopu found he was largely on his own figuring out how to care for his children. The rest of his family is still in Ghana, so he couldn’t rely on them to support him. And his close-knit church family in North Texas was unable to help either.
“Eighty or 90% of them were also going through the same challenges,” or worse, he said. “You call someone, they tell you they’re dead. You call someone hey, Thomas had COVID, he died. Many things have affected our community.
His lifeline, however, came in the form of help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth. The organization helped him pay some bills, but they also assigned him a financial coach to help him navigate through uncertain times.
Myrna Robles, his social worker, says Okopu is just one of many who continue to dig the hole the pandemic has ripped in their finances.
“It’s incredibly stressful to see a person like Darlington, to hear him say, ‘I’ve never been through this before. I’ve never been unable to pay my bills. I’ve never been behind on my rent,” Robles said.
Rebuilding after setbacks
Before COVID-19 hit, Robles’ clients at Catholic Charities mostly worked, had stable housing and met their bills, but worked with her to build financial security. The pandemic has reduced progress for so many families, she said, sending clients into survival mode.
“The majority of my clients on my caseload have increased their debt exponentially, taken out payday loans – what I call predatory loans – and are just drowning in the stress of not being able to repay these loans, not being able to pay these credit cards, maxing out their credit cards and still not being able to,” she said.
Robles says it will take people years to get out of the debt they took on to survive the pandemic. Some will probably never repay their debt. But in addition to the debt, she believes the trauma continues to haunt her clients.
Darlington Okopu, however, is now on a stronger financial footing, paying off his debt as quickly as possible.
He credits help from Catholic charities for getting him through the worst of the pandemic, helping him in big and small ways by connecting him with rental assistance, and even helping him to getting back-to-school items for her kids.
Okopu has accepted a job at the post office and hopes to get full-time status and benefits soon. He has already been able to pay off two credit cards and his credit score has increased by more than one hundred points.
But like many North Texans, Okopu’s finances are partly at the mercy of available hours at work.
“Last Thanksgiving year we had a lot of hours at the post office, so I had more hours,” he said. “I took this opportunity to pay a little more than the minimum payment. After Christmas the hours started to drop, so I went back to minimum payments again. »
Still, he is pleased with the progress and sees more success coming.
“It’s a matter of time. That too will pass,” he told his children during the worst of the pandemic. “And little by little, we’re passing through.”