Author: Rocio Rodarte

A Tale of Two Recoveries

A Tale of Two Recoveries: How Immigrant Families Survived COVID-19

Lately, we’ve been hearing in the news how most American households are doing much better financially today than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. From stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to the expanded Child Tax Credit, federal COVID-19 relief played a critical role in helping families survive, and even improve their financial footing.

But this picture misses another lesser-known story of recovery: the experience of immigrant families who were excluded from federal pandemic relief. 

On December 2, 2021, we came together to uplift the stories and experiences of immigrant families left behind. We reflected with partners and asked ourselves, how can we help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives? Watch the recording below.

11.5 million immigrants and their families were denied federal COVID-19 relief.

As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.”—Juan, Immigrant Families Fund recipient

Immigrants have long been excluded from this country’s social safety net. Despite paying billions in federal taxes every year, undocumented immigrants remain ineligible for nearly all federal protections, from health insurance to food and housing subsidies.

During the pandemic, three in four undocumented immigrants filled frontline essential roles, risking their own lives to help keep us fed, safe, and healthy. Yet, even as they stepped up for the country, they remained excluded from federal relief. It’s estimated that an immigrant family of four was denied upward of $11,400. Without this critical support, immigrant families’ lives took a devastating hit. 

Essential, invisible, and excluded. 

Drawing on our unparalleled survey of more than 11,000 immigrants excluded from federal relief, we got an honest and painful look at how immigrant families survived.  

Without a social safety net to fall back on, many immigrants had no choice but to show up for work. The costs for workers on the frontlines was immense: not only did workers put their families’ health at risk, but those who did get sick faced a downward spiral of financial hardship.

Families where a member got sick with COVID-19 were not only more likely to lose income and fall behind on bills than households where no one got sick, but they were also more likely to face penalties, have their utilities shut off, and be evicted.

Many immigrant families walked into the crisis with limited access and few financial options. Families who were invisible to the formal financial system prior to COVID-19𑁋lacking a Social Security Number or Tax ID𑁋were less likely to have checking accounts or credit cards.

And with fewer financial strategies, these families had fewer options to draw on during COVID-19. Indeed, we saw that immigrants who had a Tax ID were 45% more likely to pay their monthly bills in full than immigrants without a Tax ID. 

So how did families survive in a system that treated them as essential and invisible? Many went without, as 6 in 10 families reported being unable to cover their basic needs. Despite these sacrifices, many families still had to take on debt. In the depth of the pandemic, families who had fallen behind reported having $2,000 in unpaid bills, representing zombie debt that families will carry with them even into the recovery.

Our calls to action.

So, where do we go from here?

We invited advocates and practitioners to talk about how we can show up, do more, and do better. Across the board, we heard that while steps are being taken to help people rebuild, more needs to happen for a truly equitable and inclusive recovery.

A Tale of Two Recoveries, webinar panelists

SHOW UP: Make policies inclusive of all immigrants. The federal government has set a damaging precedent of excluding immigrants from critical social safety net policies. However, there are choices we can make at the state and local levels to help offer relief with the resources we have available now. Policy is a choice, and it’s in our power to advocate for more inclusive protections and services for all immigrants across all levels of government.

DO MORE: Remove structural barriers. Without legal status, immigrants continue to be left out of critical resources that could help them rebuild. But accessibility runs even deeper: from language to technology barriers, we need to ensure programs and services are delivered in-language, in-culture, and in ways that help families use resources when they need them.

DO BETTER: Change mindsets together. From COVID-19 relief packages to the growing recognition that giving people cash works, we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made to better support people at the margins. But we need more allies in this fight so that we can build systems that create more equitable pathways of opportunity. When we harness our collective power, we can create lasting change.

We know the work is far from over.

Immigrants have been excluded from our nation’s support systems for too long, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated many of these existing inequities. This is why our work is more important than ever.

When we look ahead, we’re anchored by José’s reminder: “We have to rely on one another to keep ourselves whole and keep our spirits up. We can’t let the devastation of our reality overtake our spirits.” Together, with respect and mutuality, we can help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives with dignity.

SB 1157 Becomes Law: California’s First-in-the-Nation Rent Reporting Bill

This fall, Governor Gavin Newsom signed California Senate Bill (SB) 1157, creating a historic new avenue of credit-building opportunities for low-income families in the state. At a time when so many households are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of a pandemic and recession, this law offers a credit-building lifeline. Authored by Steven Branford (D-Gardena), the new law will give tenants living in subsidized housing an opportunity to have their rent payments reported to major credit bureaus, enabling them to continue safely building credit even after this crisis.

MAF sponsored SB 1157, in partnership with the Credit Builders Alliance and Prosperity Now, because we believe in the lasting impact that rent reporting can have in helping many Californians establish or build their credit scores. For over 15 years, we’ve led the charge to bring low-income and immigrant communities out of the financial shadows by offering non-traditional paths to credit-building opportunities. From Lending Circles to SB 896, MAF has continuously strived to not only meet people where they are in their financial journeys, but uplift the strategies that recognize their strengths and help them participate in the financial mainstream with dignity. Through SB 1157, we continue to act on a vision of honoring good practices already taking place by formally recognizing them and elevating them to the mainstream.

Over 45% of Californians rent their housing, and unlike homeowners who can build credit through their mortgage payments, renters cannot do the same even when making on-time payments.

Failure to pay rent, however, has a negative impact on a renter’s credit score. Without a decent credit score, renters stand to be left out of essential services, such as loans for buying a house, obtaining basic utility services or cell phone plans, and getting credit cards. As a result of current uneven credit reporting practices, renters are seven times more likely to have a minimal credit history deemed unscorable by credit bureaus compared to homeowners. The monetary and logistical barriers associated with reporting requirements often discourage landlords from submitting full rental payment histories to credit bureaus. Yet, the evidence on rent reporting data shows clear and consistent results: full rent reporting plays a critical role in helping people without credit scores establish one and helps those with low scores improve theirs.

Rent reporting to major credit bureaus will offer low-income renters an opportunity to build credit as a financial asset while helping them rebuild for a post-pandemic world.

SB 1157 is tailored to tenants most likely to receive the greatest benefit from establishing or improving their credit scores. It offers a first of its kind solution to rent reporting credit discrepancies, opening up lines of credit-building access for tenants living in subsidized housing and giving them the opportunity to enter or stay in the financial mainstream during this pandemic. In keeping with our values, this bill meets people where they are by giving tenants the financial tools they need to exercise them at their own time and within their own context.

Having good credit is an asset that needs to be cultivated and sustained, especially during unexpected financial shocks where low-income families are most likely to be hit hardest.

People’s financial lives have been unraveled by COVID-19. In a state where there is already a massive shortage of affordable rental homes and where an increasing number of tenants are at risk of eviction due to the economic downturn, California’s low-income families should not have to bear the brunt of this pandemic any further. People’s livelihoods continue to be on the line, and SB 1157 can give low-income renters an opportunity to maintain some semblance of a financial footing as they continue to tackle asset-building barriers. This new law will allow low-income Californians to not let their credit histories fall through the cracks, giving them a fighting chance in the recovery of this pandemic.

From direct relief to state-wide systemic changes, we continue to put clients at the forefront of the products and policies we advocate for. With SB 1157, we’re another step closer to providing the low-income and immigrant communities we serve with access to the tools they need to increase their financial well-being.

Taryn’s Story: Finding Transformation in the Uncertainty

Taryn Williams’ magnetic personality and infectious laugh easily overcome the monotony of the typical video conference call that’s become all too familiar for many of us. A full-time student at the California State University Long Beach and mother of five-year-old twins Isaiah and McKayla, Taryn is no stranger to the challenges of a heavy load under trying circumstances. As she eats her lunch during our video conversation, she excitedly talks about her Executive internship at Target this summer. She leans back to show me her packed color-coded calendar filled with thesis assignments, GRE practice tests, and application deadlines. “It’s absolute madness,” she comments with a wide smile. 

Like many college students, Taryn has experienced the significant disruption that COVID-19 has brought upon the day-to-day social interactions on bustling college campuses. Loss of a passionate exchange of ideas, loss of a study space, and, as a mother of two young children, Taryn has also lost access to childcare and free meals. For Taryn, college was not only her place of academic and personal growth, but it was also her social safety net. “Financial security for me was strongly tied to being in school. When COVID happened, I didn’t get my stimulus check, my husband’s work hours were cut, I lost my government assistance.” As a recipient of MAF’s CA College Student Support Grant, Taryn was able to buy food and basic needs for her family. Losing critical income and food support for her family created new sets of challenges nonetheless. But for Taryn, this was another chapter in a long story of perseverance and hope. 

Inspiration and Hope Emerge in Unlikely Moments

“My children are my driving force for everything I do. I went back to school when they were fifteen months, and that was pretty crazy.”

At 31 years old, Taryn decided she wanted to have a picture of herself in college graduation regalia with her children. And she picked a particularly unexpected time in her life to do that.

“When I went back to school, I didn’t have childcare, I had just totaled my car, we had been forced out of our housing due to gentrification. So, I had no place to live, didn’t have a bank account, didn’t have a job, didn’t have a car, had these two newborns. I really wanted to tell myself that this wasn’t the time to go back to school. But I just kept going.”

More than ten years earlier, Taryn had started college but ultimately had to take a permanent break. Taryn describes the agony of attending school for years and trying to stay focused while dealing with one curveball after another. Raised in the foster care system, Taryn had attended over a dozen elementary schools growing up. She moved so often she worried she didn’t know how to properly read and write. When she was 19, her dad lost his job and left town. She was left homeless. She experienced substance abuse and depression. “Unable to provide basic food, shelter, and clothing, school was just no longer a priority for me.” Nearly ten years after taking a leave from college, Taryn enrolled in Long Beach City College to pursue her associate’s degree. Her goal in coming back to school: show her kids what an alternative future could hold. Timing – where she was in her life and who she had with her – was everything for this new beginning.

The Power of Being Seen and Heard: Finding a Voice in Community and Acceptance

It took that one “A” in her chemistry class to completely change Taryn’s academic trajectory. She was then recommended to the Honors Program. Taryn didn’t feel like that was where she was at all, she recalled with an incredulous laugh. 

“Joining that honors program and having people there totally accept me for who I am – and really meeting me where I was in that part of my academic journey – was really reinforcing.” 

Stepping out of her comfort zone lit a fire in her to keep going. People’s encouragement fueled her motivation and her belief in herself. And then it happened: she got her first 4.0 GPA. “Getting that 4.0 made me realize that I shouldn’t judge myself based on my prior experiences.” She now knew she had to go even further.  

In 2018, Taryn transferred to Cal State University Long Beach with the President’s Scholarship, the most prestigious merit-based scholarships awarded by the university.

“Those scholarships are for 18-year-olds, fresh-out-of-high school valedictorians, who have over a 4.0 GPA. I’m in my 30’s, I have kids at home, I didn’t have a cumulative 4.0 GPA. What did they want with me, I thought?”

But Taryn found her voice on campus. The support she received when she arrived was so overwhelming, she finally felt comfortable sharing a part of her life she had always been quieter about: she had previously been incarcerated. Taryn had been incarcerated right before her twins were born. She never wanted to bring that up before, because she felt she’d be deemed untrustworthy. She didn’t think people would really believe she was a “changed woman.” 

She found healing in opening up. “It was freeing, humbling, and because I’m naturally so loud and free-spirited, I just tapped into that. It gave me so much self-esteem.” She was hearing from students with her background that her openness was helping them heal as well. Taryn found strength in her communities of support, and uses this strength to fuel her motivation to keep going.

Changing the Narrative as a Scholar and Advocate: Looking Beyond COVID-19

Right before COVID hit, Taryn had just given a TEDx talk on bias and judgement, particularly around previously incarcerated people and the negative stereotypes people hold about them. “I come to the stage with a blazer on, and people look at me with a certain type of respect. Then, after a while, I take off my blazer, showing a bunch of tattoos, and people then become more aware of my piercings. Then they look at me differently. They judge me and I can feel it.”

Taryn is on a quest to change the narrative around previously incarcerated and foster youth’s chances at higher education attainment levels.

She wants to apply to PhD programs and become a faculty member at a university one day so she can advocate for and support her communities. Taryn plans to graduate this December with a double bachelor’s in management and operations supply chain management. 

Yes, she deeply worries about COVID’s implications and how she’ll manage her kids’ school schedules this fall now that they’re starting kindergarten.

“Being a parent in college during a pandemic might be one of the harder things I’ve gone through.”

As she finishes her thesis, completes her internship, applies to PhD programs, and actively juggles the needs of her family, Taryn is putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing her journey ahead. She proudly shows me a canvas of her associate’s degree graduation photo with her kids – full regalia and all. She can’t wait to collect more pictures.  

“My biggest hope is that people will understand that you really, truly can do whatever you want. You have to seek out your community. You have to be willing to speak up for what your needs are, and then say when your needs are not being met. Most importantly, you have to be willing to ask for more –you have to know that you’re worth asking for more. And, anything is possible.” 

“Any last words?”” I ask, still soaking in the depth of Taryn’s casual summary of life lessons. “Yes, wear a mask!” she exclaims with laughter. 

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