A pandemic of debt: Many in DFW struggle with debt they took on to survive COVID’s financial storm – KERA News
Darlington Okopu’s number one priority has always been taking care of his teenaged 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 a job assembling car parts in Arlington.
Okopu says he first started feeling the pandemic’s impact at work.
“People were not coming. You ask about them. ‘Hey, he got infected,’” he recalled. “Then you hear someone has died. So it became very scary.”
Then, work hours were cut and shifts were staggered out. In short order, he says the warehouse closed down.
After he was furloughed, Okopu didn’t qualify for unemployment because of his immigration status. He’d gotten his green card shortly before the pandemic and hadn’t worked long enough to qualify for benefits from the Texas Workforce Commission. As other pandemic assistance was approved by the federal government, he found a lot of it similarly out of reach.
Although he quickly found another job, it wasn’t consistently full-time, and he started racking up credit card debt to keep afloat.
“It was very tough, very tough,” he said. “And it got to a point in time where I just picked three things out of my life: How to get money to pay my rent, to pay my light bill, to keep my car moving. That’s what’s going to keep my kids for me.”
‘A lot of it hit in our community’
Okopu did manage to keep his kids housed and fed and the lights on. He avoided having his car repossessed, which allowed him to keep working. But it cost him: In all, Okopu says he racked up about $18,000 in credit card debt.
On the whole, Americans paid down credit card balances in the first year of the pandemic, flush with stimulus payments and unable to spend on restaurants and vacations. But amid that average decline, 30% of credit card holders saw their balances increase, especially parents of kids under 18, Millennials and low-wage workers.
Navigating the pandemic was stressful, and Okopu realized he was largely on his own to figure out how to care for his kids. The rest of his family is still in Ghana, so he couldn’t lean on them for support. And his close-knit church family in North Texas was in no position to help, either.
“Eighty or 90% of them were also going through the same challenges,” or worse, he said. “You call somebody, they tell you he is dead. You call somebody hey, Thomas had COVID, he’s dead. A lot of it hit in our community.”
His lifesaver, though, came in the form of help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth. The organization helped him pay some bills, but it also assigned him a financial coach to help him chart a path through uncertain times.
Myrna Robles, his caseworker, says Okopu is just one of so many people still digging out of the hole the pandemic blew in their finances.
Myrna Robles is a financial wellness navigator for Catholic Charities Fort Worth.
“It’s incredibly stressful to see a person like Darlington, to hear him say, ‘I’ve never been through this before. I’ve never not been able to pay my bills. I’ve never …….