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Why people in Houston struggle to pay bills more than people in other major cities

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many people in this country are having trouble paying the bills. This may be news to families that kept their jobs and saved money during the pandemic. The story is different for many in Houston. A winter storm that shut down power and a busy hurricane season have made things worse there. A survey by NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that of the four largest cities in the United States, Houston is having the toughest time. Here's Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: For Tiffany Duron, the pandemic has meant becoming the sole breadwinner of her family. The 40-year-old Hispanic woman is a hospital nurse, and she's aware that her job puts her health at risk.

TIFFANY DURON: I have to pay my bills, so there was no choice of me staying home or not. I had to go.

ERNST: All the while, her husband, an electrician, lost work. Her nieces couldn't make ends meet and moved in with her. All in all, she was supporting a family of six.

DURON: I mean, we've had a conversation of how are we going to cut down or what are we going to do or what can we go without for a while? It was a really - test to our marriage. But I mean, we're pulling through. I mean, all you can do is just keep going and keep the Lord as your No. 1.

ERNST: The pandemic has put most Houstonians in this position, according to a survey conducted in August and September. In Houston, nearly 60% of those households said they're struggling to meet basic expenses, like rent, utilities and food. And they're having more trouble than households in New York, Chicago and L.A.

JIE WU: Houston has experienced multiple natural disasters before the pandemic.

ERNST: Jie Wu is an urban researcher at Rice University. She says compounding disasters have set so many Houstonians back financially.

WU: Those three - that's a Hurricane Harvey, Winter Storm Yuri and the COVID-19.

ERNST: Tiffany Duron's house got flooded during Harvey. She says dealing with the pandemic would have been so much easier if they didn't just get through the damage of the storm.

DURON: Yes, just - we barely, barely got ourselves back situated when this hit. I'm like, come on. Give me a break.

ERNST: These disasters have hit low-income communities of color the hardest. Only 30% of white households in Houston reported serious financial problems, compared to over 70% of Black and Latino households. Historically, communities of color have had less access to credit, which has made it difficult to build up savings. There has been some disaster relief, but help hasn't always reached people who need it.

WU: A lot of minority residents may not be aware of the funding that's available, or they really need some help to apply for some of the funding.

ERNST: People often rely on the connections they have to access the social safety net in times of need, or they might look to family for help, which might not always be an option for people of color who are less likely to have generational wealth. That's something Anessa Guess, a 26-year-old Black woman, didn't have when she was unemployed for eight months during the pandemic.

ANESSA GUESS: I take care of myself. Both of my parents have passed away. I really take care of myself. I mean that literally.

ERNST: Guess worked at a creative production agency. And when the pandemic first hit, the work slowed down and the workplace became a very toxic environment. She had to quit when the stress started to affect her health. With little to no income, the bills started to pile up. And she had to make some tough decisions on how to use her savings, like choosing between her rent and her phone bill.

GUESS: The goal is to just be in a position where I can live comfortably, and I don't have to make so many tradeoffs. So I'm like, OK, well, if I do have to go get new glasses, it won't cut into me paying my cellphone bill on time.

ERNST: Guess recently started a new job - a much healthier environment, she says. Her savings are depleted, and she's working to build them back up. But she has much bigger ambitions. She wants to be debt-free and to start her own side business, too.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.