Inside the COVID-19 recession, one of the most unequal in modern history

While many middle and high-income workers are back at work, the country's low-wage workers are still suffering from a recession that has annihilated their jobs. Scott Pelley reports.

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Soon, President Biden is expected to sign a third COVID recession relief plan just days before emergency unemployment benefits expire. For many the need is great, in part, because this recession is the most unequal in modern history. This past Friday, new jobs numbers confirmed that middle and high-income workers are returning but the jobs of low-income Americans have been annihilated. Relief checks have been a lifeline, but temporary. Many, like the Americans you're about to meet, were already struggling in poverty when COVID pushed them over the edge. As they fall, the pandemic is cutting away at the safety net. For 23-year-old Courtney Yoder, the cruel recession hit just as she was saving enough from her job to move out of a tent, anticipating the birth of her first child.

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  Courtney Yoder

Courtney Yoder: Working actually was something good for me. And then when I lost it, it was like, "Now I have nothing, you know what I mean, to look forward to." Because I actually felt good about myself. I felt accomplished. I felt like I was doing something in my life. I had stacked up three checks. I was actually trying. Then all that gets taken from me.

There wasn't much to take from Courtney Yoder. She had lived in and out of foster care from age 3. On her own at 18, she pitched a tent in Columbus, Ohio and found a job in a restaurant.

Scott Pelley: COVID comes and I take it the restaurant closed.

Courtney Yoder: Yes. Yeah. 

Scott Pelley: You went back to the tent and thought what?

Courtney Yoder: "What am I gonna do now?" So I'm not working. I have no income. I'm waiting on unemployment. I have no way to get to and from anywhere. I can't go to the library. All the places are closed that we usually go to to eat. Or, you know, going to during the day. 

She couldn't even go back to her tent. It was slashed by someone who left a warning that she was on railroad property. When we met, she was eight months pregnant and had to push herself to keep fighting.

Courtney Yoder: Because there was times where I wanted to give up and, you know what I mean, not be alive anymore. And just be like, you know what I mean, "Things are never gonna get better,"

Courtney Yoder is among the Americans suffering the most. COVID killed the jobs of low-earning workers in restaurants, hotels, theaters and shops -- jobs held mainly by women and minorities. 

Steve Roth: You know, some of those aren't gonna come back. Some of those jobs won't come back.

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Retired firefighter Steve Roth and nurse Jackie White distribute food

In Columbus, retired firefighter Steve Roth and nurse Jackie White are discovering the wreckage of the recession. For 22 years, Roth has shouldered relief for the homeless. Now there are newcomers to those, as he puts it, who live on the land. 

Steve Roth: Before the pandemic hit, they were just makin' it. They were just makin' their bills. And now the rug's pulled out from under 'em. 

Scott Pelley: People who were just hanging on when everything was normal. 

Steve Roth: Those people that had multiple jobs even before things got bad. 

How bad is measured in Ohio's unemployment claims, which are higher in the pandemic than the last five years combined. Nationwide, COVID took 9 million jobs. The crush of new unemployment claims has delayed benefit checks. 

Steve Roth works for Mount Carmel, a not-for-profit hospital system that has brought compassion to the homeless for 32 years and watched the need grow with every recession.

Steve Roth: We have our mobile medical clinic that sets up at various locations throughout the city. We have two exam rooms, X-ray, pharmacy. A place for our physician and our nurse practitioner to work in there, also our nurses. We can do just about anything that a doctor's office can do. And then we also have a specific team that goes out to the homeless camps and provides care out there.

Scott Pelley: What are their needs? 

Steve Roth: They need someplace warm. They need a tent. They need shoes, clothes. They need blankets, they need sleeping bags. And those are all things that we provide for them.

Scott Pelley: And their medical needs are what?

Steve Roth: Unfortunately, a lot of what we deal with right now is because of addiction. But they also have high blood pressure. They have diabetes. They have skin issues. Everything that everybody else has, they have also.

In the pandemic, Mount Carmel has increased its rounds from two days a week, to five.

Scott Pelley: Where are we?

Steve Roth: So we're on the South End of Columbus, behind a big shopping center. 

Before the pandemic, a census counted more than half a million homeless Americans. COVID is likely to crowd the camps with another quarter million according to a study by the economic roundtable.  

Scott Pelley: How has COVID changed the world for these people? 

Steve Roth: There were a lot of places throughout the city where they could get resources. Clothes, food, they could go somewhere to get warm, like a library. Those are done, they can't have any of that stuff.

When COVID closed soup kitchens, Mount Carmel started delivery. 

Steve Roth: Mid-Ohio Food Bank made lunches for us, and we were passin' out 100 lunches a day to people. And when it first happened, they were so thankful for that food. They said, "Oh, my gosh, haven't eaten for two days," well, here's a lunch.

The Mid-Ohio Food Bank tells the story of how COVID threatens the lifelines to the newly unemployed. 

Scott Pelley: Every aisle is filled up like this one. So how long does this food last you?

Matt Habash: If we didn't bring any more food in today, this would be less than 30 days we'd move all the food that's in this building out. 

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  Matt Habash

Mid-Ohio Food Bank's CEO Matt Habash ordered three times more food than usual for the emergency, but then, covid took away his most important resource.

Matt Habash: We have 13,000 volunteers put in about 70,000 hours of packing. And we were gonna lose 'em all. You know, figured senior citizens are being told to stay home. And more than half our wonderful volunteers are corporate volunteers. And they were all being told to stay home.

So, Ohio ordered in the National Guard.

More than 300 troops have distributed 90 million pounds of food in Ohio. Nationwide, the census bureau says four and a half million people, who lost jobs to COVID, don't have enough to eat. 

Scott Pelley: What is your understanding of how much the need has increased?

Major General John Harris commands the Ohio Guard.

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  Major General John Harris

John Harris: The demand has increased fourfold. Fivefold. Just here. Families coming to get food. Families who've never, ever had to come to a food bank for food are coming now. I'm reminded of a story a soldier told me about people who worked in the food bank where he was working. People who had previously volunteered at that food bank are now coming to the food bank to get food because their families are in need. So that places pressure on our folks to ensure those people leave here with their dignity.

Hunger is reaching into middle-income families too. More than 17 million Americans have told the census bureau they've relied on free food during the pandemic. 

Scott Pelley: Who are these people?

Matt Habash: Our neighbors. It's people that are just struggling, people that lost jobs because of COVID, seniors that are shut-in and a lot of them are kids. And that's probably the scariest thing to me is making sure those kids get enough food. We actually had a 14-year-old say to us, "It's not my day to eat." 

Seventeen-year-old Nathan Majeed did not skip a day of eating, but when his parents lost their jobs in a hotel and a shoe store, his diet grew thin just as he was writing his college applications.

Nathan Majeed: Food wise, we just had to make different approaches toward certain foods. So we would basically just stock up on rice. And that would be a main part of our diet, pretty much. 

Columbus students told us about hunger, cutting back on electricity and living in the family car. Twelve-year-old Shawnahlee Archey and her 11-year-old sister, Sarah, told us their parents lost their janitorial jobs-- then, lost their home before the eviction moratorium. Still, their mom and dad fought back like parents who've seen the shadow of hunger creep too close. 

Shawnahlee Archey: My family has always, always, always made sure we were okay. Has always gave us somewhere to stay, you know? Has always kept food in our stomachs. Have always kept clothes on our backs. It-- it just-- you know, it hit my mom the worst 'cause she felt like she was a bad mother.

Scott Pelley: How did you help your mother through that?

Shawnahlee Archey: I told her that she can talk to me, you know, about anything, whatever. She's the reason why I'm here today, you know? She's my world.

A shelter couldn't take her family right away because it had cut capacity for social distancing. So, four kids and two adults lived in this minivan.

Scott Pelley: How long were you living in the car?

Sarah Archey: Just about a week. 

Students say they fell behind during pandemic... 04:39

After that week, there were six weeks in a shelter and now, this rental paid for by a charity. Sarah told us the van wasn't so bad. As she put it, "I'm small. I'll fit wherever."

But other young people don't seem to fit anywhere, some abused or pregnant teenagers kicked from the home—we found them—waiting in line at a shelter, hoping they would not be turned away. 

Ann Bischoff: This is the first time that we've had that line that you're talking about. Previous to the pandemic, we were open 24/7. And we were the only place in central Ohio where a young person around the clock could have immediate access to safety.

Ann Bischoff, is CEO of Star House-- a refuge for young people 14 to 24. 

Scott Pelley: What has the pandemic taken away from these young people?

Ann Bischoff: We have typically pre-COVID, a range of partners who would come in and offer onsite education, onsite jobs. Health care has fallen off as well. Typically, we would have 15 hours of medical care. Now they're coming in, but it's every other week.

COVID-related staff shortages mean Star House is now closed from 2 p.m. to 10:30 at night and its capacity is limited.

Courtney Yoder: And so I'd come in and they'd be like, "Oh, we're at capacity." And you're like, "I just want something to drink. I just want something to eat. I just wanna lay down."

Courtney Yoder relied on Star House while she was saving to get out of her tent. 

Courtney Yoder: I felt like, "I'm working so hard. I have, you know, a job and I'm like, I'm gettin' off work, gettin' off the bus and I have my clothes still on from-- and I wanna shower." And I'm comin' in and, "Oh, we're at capacity, Courtney." And I'm like, "Back to the tents. I can't even shower for tomorrow to go back to work. I can't even change my clothes." 

Star House would be dimmed by COVID even further but it received money from last year's federal relief. Courtney Yoder is one of the shelter's successes—recently she got an apartment through a charity, the Homeless Families Foundation.

Courtney Yoder: Being in a house and actually being able to say, "I can-- like, I'm going home." Like, being-- actually being able to say, "I'm going home," like, that's, like, so much to me. 

With shelter, she found two jobs—70 hours a week— and then took time off beginning this past December when she became a single mother to a boy named Ryder.

Scott Pelley: You're still a believer in the American dream.

Courtney Yoder: Yeah. I'm still fighting, and I feel like I fought this hard because, you know what I mean, I wouldn't have eventually gotten to meet my son and love him and care for him and just make sure that he's safe. 

Steve Roth of Mount Carmel is meeting people who are new to living on the land.  

And there will be more. Low-wage jobs will not recover until 2024 according to the Congressional Budget Office. Until then, Americans who were the first to lose their jobs and will be last to get them back—will be depending on an uptick in the index of human kindness.

Produced by Nicole Young. Associate producer, Katie Kerbstat Jacobson. Field producer, Anam Siddiq. Broadcast associate, Ian Flickinger. Edited by Peter M. Berman.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"