“We don’t have the money for a down payment. No way to move without a car,” she said. “Moving costs alone will kill us with one income and no help.”
The family’s plight illustrates the silent suffering amid an economic recovery that shows signs of fizzling and a pandemic that is only getting worse. For the president-elect, a Wilmington resident himself, addressing the complex blend of urgent short-term issues and chronic ailments that afflict such families will be among his most difficult challenges.
Once an industrial mecca best known for homegrown chemical maker DuPont, the majority-Black city of 71,000 people today is a financial services center. Credit card processing and corporate services now dominate where shipyards and foundries formerly reigned.
Like larger cities, Wilmington has lost more than a third of its population since its industrial heyday and struggles with violent crime.
Wilmington residents’ median annual household income of barely $48,000 trails the $68,703 national figure, according to the Census Bureau. The city’s Black and Latino households never recovered from the 2009 financial crisis and earn just half what their White counterparts do.
Now the local economy faces a fresh setback from the rampaging virus. This month, Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) issued a stay-at-home advisory, “strongly” urging state residents to avoid members of other households until Jan. 11. The move came after limits announced in November, including on indoor dining, failed to head off a continued coronavirus surge.
“I think our worst months are coming. People are getting scared again and staying home,” said Mary Sue DiFebo, who has owned Feby’s, a popular seafood restaurant and fish market, with her husband since 1974. “All of Wilmington is hurting.”
On Dec. 4, the U.S. Labor Department reported the weakest job growth since the recession ended this summer. Along with inflicting its own toll, the pandemic has aggravated fault lines in the U.S. economy, such as inequality and racial disparities.
Eight months after Congress last acted to provide help, there are signs that lawmakers may be nearing agreement on a new $908 billion relief package. But Wilmington’s problems — and the nation’s — will not be solved by quick legislative fixes.
“Structural inequities that have always existed in our economy are being exacerbated like never before,” economist Cecilia Rouse of Princeton University, Biden’s choice to head the Council of Economic Advisers, said this month in Wilmington.
At the end of the year, unless new relief is approved, the suffering will intensify. Nearly 14 million workers are receiving pandemic-related unemployment benefits that end the day after Christmas. Up to 17 million households could lose their rental housing if a federal eviction moratorium expires as scheduled Dec. 31, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
“We’re going to see major devastation,” said Maria Matos, president of the Latin American Community Center (LACC) in Wilmington. “If Congress doesn’t act and act fast, things are going to get continually worse. Coronavirus isn’t expiring at the end of the year.”
At the LACC, which before the pandemic got one or two financial aid requests each week, workers now field 20 appeals a day from people seeking help paying for rent, utilities, groceries — “anything you have to pay for that you can’t pay for when you don’t have money,” Matos said.
The center this year has distributed $560,000 among 790 impoverished households, including the Arces.
Long before the coronavirus arrived, the family struggled. In 2015, Arce lost her job as a delivery driver for a bakery, and the family lost their housing. The parents and their three children cycled between motels for more than two years.
“We were homeless when I was pregnant, and when I was discharged from the hospital, we had nowhere to go,” she said.
She still remembers the date — Sept. 27, 2019 — when a state program enabled the family to move into the three-bedroom home with a small backyard and unfinished basement.
Little more than five months later, the pandemic began unraveling the Arces’ modest success. At first, when she stopped working to care for her children, Arce received $197 a week in unemployment benefits, supplemented by $600 in federal pandemic relief. But the extra federal money expired at the end of July, and her regular benefits lapsed in mid-November.
With just her husband’s $26,000 yearly salary as an optical technician and five mouths to feed, the Arces fell behind on their bills. They had lost their car during an earlier brush with hard times in 2015.
They are not alone. When Arce goes to the grocery, she sees other shoppers counting out their change a penny at a time.
“You can tell people are struggling, trying to make ends meet,” she said.
The pandemic struck when the United States was enjoying its longest uninterrupted economic expansion since records began to be kept in 1857. The 3.5 percent unemployment rate in February hovered near a half-century low, and wages were rising, notably for lower-income workers with little wealth. Almost a third of Wilmington’s Black and Latino households entered this crisis with a net worth of zero, according to a 2019 report by Prosperity Now and JPMorgan Chase.
“So many of these people were finally starting to see some improvement when this all started,” said James Butkiewicz, an economics professor at the University of Delaware. “It’s just been devastating for those who could afford it the least. It hasn’t been much of a problem for those who could afford it the most.”
Even as the stock market rewards investors with new all-time highs, nearly 10 million fewer Americans are working today than were employed in February.
When the pandemic began, Congress approved a $3 trillion rescue that included forgivable loans for small businesses and extended unemployment benefits. But there were holes in the safety net.
Natalie Garay, 32, a single mother of four, has bounced in and out of the labor force this year, depending upon the status of the local schools. She says she has applied for unemployment benefits twice and never received an answer, let alone any money. She has fallen behind on the monthly payment for her 2017 Chevy Traverse and her lender is getting antsy.
Her second- and third-graders attend classes four days a week, while her seventh-grader and high school student have in-person classes on only two days. On Wednesdays, all four kids are home on Zoom with Garay running among computers, trying to help.
She lives in fear one of them will be exposed to an infected student, which would mean a mandatory 14-day quarantine, forcing her to stay home from her $31,000-a-year job as a medical office assistant.
“I’m on my own,” she said. “I’m scared for the next couple of months.”
Washington’s delay in approving additional aid has been especially hard on families: Forty-two percent of adults with children said they found it “somewhat” or “very” difficult to pay routine bills in the past seven days, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The pressures are proving too much for some. Case workers at Child Inc., a nonprofit social services provider, began seeing an increase in domestic violence complaints within weeks of the first business closures in March.
In July, the organization sheltered 70 women and children in emergency facilities and local motels, up from 34 in the same month in 2019.
“Domestic-violence victims are staying with us longer because they have no option. They literally have nowhere to go,” said Lori Sitler, the group’s executive director.
At Faithful Friends Animal Society, the number of people using the drive-through pet food bank has risen by 50 percent, according to Jane Pierantozzi, the founder. The no-kill shelter has seen an increase in the number of owners who cannot afford to keep their pets, though people are not yet surrendering them en masse as they did in the 2009 financial crisis.
“People need their animals more than ever. It’s bad for their mental health to give them up,” she said.
Washington’s initial pandemic response helped keep alive numerous Wilmington restaurants, dentist offices, commercial real estate firms, manufacturers and printing companies — though not without leaving scars.
The city’s Grand Opera House, nine blocks from the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Amtrak station, received $765,000 in government loans. When the federal money ran out, about half of the 34 staff members were laid off, and the rest accepted 20 percent pay cuts. The venue hasn’t held an indoor performance since March.
Mark Fields, executive director of the nonprofit Grand, which operates three downtown venues, has staged outdoor events, including a drive-through holiday light show. But he needs to raise $5 million to compensate for lost revenue.
“We still don’t know — and nobody does — when we’re going to reopen,” he said. “It’s really hard to plan for a future when you don’t know when that future is going to start.”
The pandemic also derailed a planned expansion by Instant Imprints, a small business that produces apparel and signage. But helped by a “survival loan” of $30,000 from the government, owner Brian Drysdale launched a brand strategy firm that brought in new revenue.
Drysdale is worried that consumers will retreat until a vaccine becomes widely available next spring. A fresh round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans would be “extremely helpful,” he said, adding: “We’re just at this razor-blade edge that we’re living on.”
Mayor Mike Purzycki is cheered by a downtown development campaign that has dotted the city’s riverfront with new apartments and restaurants. But the pandemic punched a $10 million hole in the municipal budget, which is expected to mean layoffs for city workers.
“It looks pretty tough,” he said. “But if we have a little bit of help from Washington, I don’t think we’d have to worry about our financial situation. We can weather the storm.”
At the Arces’ home, meanwhile, Yahaira is struggling to give her kids a happy Christmas while planning a move to an unknown destination amid a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Asked whether she is hoping lawmakers provide additional help, she replied: “Not hoping — begging, crying, screaming.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to make it. But I have to keep a positive attitude,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have enough food. What happens to the bills? We’re going to have to play catch-up, and it’s scary. Without more help, it’ll be a disaster.”