A Pandemic of Debt: Many in DFW are struggling with the debt they took on to survive the financial storm of COVID

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Darlington Okopu’s number one priority has always been caring for her teenage twins. Originally from Ghana, he has 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 assembling auto parts in Arlington.

Okopu says he first started to feel the impact of the pandemic at work.

“People didn’t come. You ask about them. ‘Hey, it got infected,’” she recalled. “Then you hear that someone has died. So he became very scary.”

Then, work hours were reduced and shifts were staggered. Before long, he says the store closed.

After being suspended, Okopu did not qualify for unemployment due to his immigration status. He had obtained a green card from him shortly before the pandemic and had not worked long enough to qualify for green card benefits. Texas Workforce Commission. As the federal government approved other pandemic assistance, it found much of it similarly out of reach.

Though he quickly found another job, it wasn’t always full-time, and he began racking up credit card debt to stay afloat.

“It was very hard, very hard,” he said. “I got to a point where I chose three things in my life: how to get money to pay my rent, pay my electric bill, and keep my car moving. That’s what will keep my kids to myself.”

‘A lot of that hit 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 all, Okopu says he racked up about $18,000 in credit card debt.

Americans generally paid off credit card balances in the first year of the pandemic, on the brink of stimulus payments and unable to spend on restaurants and vacations. But in the midst of that average drop, 30% of credit card holders saw their increase in balancesespecially parents of children under 18, Millennials, and low-wage workers.

Navigating the pandemic was stressful, and Okopu realized he was on his own to figure out how to care for his children. The rest of his family is still in Ghana, so he couldn’t rely on them. And his family from the close-knit church in North Texas was also in no position to help.

“Eighty or 90% of them were also going through the same challenges,” or worse, he said. “You call someone, they tell you that he is dead. You call someone, hey, Thomas had COVID, he’s dead. A lot of this hit our community.”

His lifeline, however, came in the form of help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth. The organization helped him pay some bills, but also assigned him a financial advisor to help him chart a course through uncertain times.

Myrna Robles, her caseworker, says Okopu is just one of many people still trying to get out of the hole the pandemic has opened in their finances.

Christopher Connelly

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KERA News

Myrna Robles is a Financial Wellness Navigator for Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.

“It’s incredibly stressful to see a person like Darlington, to hear him say, ‘I’ve never been through this before. I have never been able to pay my bills. I’ve never been late on my rent,’” Robles said.

Rebuilding after setbacks

Before COVID-19 hit, Robles clients at Catholic Charities were mostly working, had stable housing and kept up with their bills, but worked with her to build greater financial security. The pandemic undid the progress of so many families, she said, putting clients into survival mode.

“Most of my clients in my caseload have increased their debt exponentially, they’ve taken out payday loans, what I call predatory loans, and they’re just drowning in the stress of not being able to pay those loans, not being able to pay those credit cards, exhausting their credit cards and still not being able to do it,” he said.

Robles says it will take years for people to get out of the debt they took on to survive the pandemic. Some may never pay their debt. But in addition to the debt, he believes the trauma continues to haunt his clients.

However, Darlington Okopu is now on a firmer financial footing and is paying off its debt as quickly as it can.

He credits the help of Catholic Charities with getting him through the worst of the pandemic, helping him in ways big and small by connecting him with rental assistance, even helping get back-to-school supplies for his kids.

Okopu took a post office job 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 gone up over a hundred points.

But like many North Texans, Okopu’s finances are partly at the mercy of the hours available at work.

“Last year on Thanksgiving, we spent a lot of hours at the post office, so I had more hours,” he said. “I took advantage of that opportunity to pay a little more than the minimum payment. After Christmas, the hours started to decrease, so I went back to minimum payments again.”

Still, he’s happy with the progress and sees more success to come.

“It’s a matter of time. This, too, shall pass,” he told his children at the height of the pandemic. “And gradually, we are passing through.”

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