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Some families have to scrimp to afford pandemic expenses like tests and masks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Masks and at-home COVID tests have become staples of pandemic life, offering added protection from the coronavirus. But that protection is also an added cost, sometimes a steep cost for people whose household budgets weren't that big to begin with, like 63-year-old Gerry Dodge.

GERRY DODGE: Just like the truck.

SHAPIRO: Dodge lives in Michigan, and she retired from her retail job early in the pandemic. Her health issues made being out in public too risky. Using high-quality masks is important to her, so Dodge has scrimped to afford them. She does less laundry, spends more time searching for cheap food, and she's still struggling to make ends meet.

DODGE: I did put off my electric bill, which is outrageous this time, to purchase KN95 masks.

SHAPIRO: Free N95 respirators are starting to be available for pickup at certain pharmacies and grocery stores around the country. Each person is allowed three.

DODGE: When I heard, I was just like, oh, well, thank you (laughter). It won't last long, but I appreciate the effort.

SHAPIRO: Three free masks won't last long in Takisha Moore's house either.

TAKISHA MOORE: We could go through a box of masks in four to five school days.

SHAPIRO: Moore lives in North Carolina. She is a single mom to six children, three go to in-person school and one has health issues that put him at higher risk for COVID. Whatever extra money Takisha makes goes to buying masks and cleaning supplies and COVID tests.

MOORE: I was able to get the tests that we needed, but it cost me almost $300.

SHAPIRO: Moore says things are only getting tighter.

MOORE: Now that we're in the pandemic, the cost of groceries are going up. You know, all of our utilities have gone up in the last couple of weeks. So I'm really having to pay attention and work my budget out regularly.

SHAPIRO: We wanted to understand how pandemic expenses for things like masks and tests are affecting households around the country. So my co-host Ailsa Chang spoke with Wendy Edelberg, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. She studies household spending and saving decisions.

WENDY EDELBERG: The challenges that have been created by the pandemic are so many.

SHAPIRO: They started with what Edelberg thinks when she hears about people like Takisha Moore or Gerry Dodge.

EDELBERG: I think it's important to differentiate why we might worry about the aggregate economy and why it is completely appropriate for us to worry about individual households who the help hasn't reached. So first, thinking about in aggregate - in aggregate, people look like they are doing better than before the pandemic.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Interesting.

EDELBERG: Credit card debt is down. The amount of money that people have been able to sock away and save relative to what they were able to do before the pandemic is up. But there are some really important caveats there. One is that just because people are doing better than they were prior to the pandemic doesn't mean they're doing well. A lot of people came into the pandemic with really slim margins of savings and very little or maybe even negative wealth. And for those folks, putting even a little bit of pressure on their financial situation is going to make their lives hard. So it's not that I'm worried about the economy in aggregate. I'm worried about who the fiscal support didn't reach, and I'm worried about who the labor market recovery is not reaching.

CHANG: Right. And as you mentioned, this extra spending, it isn't just financial, right? It's also spending in terms of time. People are spending hours, sometimes, searching for masks or waiting in lines for free test kits to bring home. Can you just walk us through how the cost of time plays out for families of different income levels here?

EDELBERG: Yeah. For people of a lot of financial means, if they want to, they can avoid this time tax. I mean, heck, you can pay to have somebody come to your home and administer a COVID test for you and give you the results of, like, a high-quality test within hours and not days.

CHANG: Yeah.

EDELBERG: But for somebody else who that would be a real financial reach, they may also not have the time to go wait in line for three hours in the cold with their children to get that test and then, on top of it, probably wait days for those test results. And so there are people who can avoid the time tax by spending a lot of money. There are people who maybe prefer to be spending their time doing something else but at least have the time to be able to comb through the neighborhood Listservs to figure out which store just got masks. And then there are the people who have neither time nor money, and that's who we should worry about the most.

CHANG: Well, the Biden administration, of course, is sending some free tests to households, handing out a limited number of N95 masks at pharmacies. Let me ask you, are these government policies kind of just too little, too late at this point to combat the debt that people are racking up purchasing these items on their own up until now?

EDELBERG: It is certainly a step in the right direction. I am worried that it's too little, too late for the people who need a steady supply of brand-new, high-quality masks week in and week out. Getting a couple of masks, that's a good thing, but that doesn't meet them where their lives are. And similarly, getting four tests in the mail, that's not nearly enough. But I think our recovery will continue to muddle along in aggregate even if households have to expend, you know, $25 a week that they would much prefer to be spending on something else or that they have to dip into their savings or borrow on their credit cards. Like, it's a problem, but it's not going to derail our recovery.

CHANG: Well, what kind of government policies would you like to see at this point during the pandemic to help families who are spending the money and the time to get things like masks or home testing kits?

EDELBERG: I think it's similar to the arc of being able to get vaccinated. It is much easier to get vaccinated now than it was in the first couple of months when vaccines were first rolled out. And that was a policy failure. Now we, for the most part, figured out how to make vaccines available to whoever wants them. It took us, as a country, a frustrating long time to work that out. My guess is that policymakers are working really hard on the testing and the mask availability problem. And in some months, we will also be able to get tests as we want them and masks will be more available. But this was a somewhat predictable problem.

CHANG: I guess I'm still baffled at why it seems the administration figured out access to vaccines faster than they figured out access to masking and testing, which you would have thought would have happened way earlier than access to vaccines.

EDELBERG: I think policymakers were laser focused on getting access to vaccines solved, and I think it's just hard to be laser focused on more than one thing. So they were focused on getting access to vaccines, and I think dropped the ball on making sure that we had easy access to masks and tests. And they're now trying to play catch-up.

CHANG: Exactly. That is Wendy Edelberg, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much for joining us.

EDELBERG: You're very welcome. Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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