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A recently published working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research includes a damning statistic: had the federal government instituted a nationwide moratorium on evictions from March to November 2020, deaths from COVID-19 could have been reduced by up to 40.7 percent. The move would have reduced infection rates by 14.2 percent.
The finding underscores the tragic consequences of the government’s failure to respond swiftly and aggressively to the growing pandemic.
Forty percent is a shockingly high number; however, one of the paper’s authors, Duke University economics professor Christopher Timmins, said that the estimate makes sense because instituting the moratorium early would have had a compounding effect.
The researchers arrived at the 40.7 percent number by looking at the actual number of infections and deaths in counties that enacted moratoria on both evictions and utility shutoffs. They then extrapolated from these numbers to estimate what would have happened had the rest of the country instituted the same policies.
The researchers found that counties that instituted eviction moratoria reduced case rates by 3.8 percent and COVID-related deaths by 11 percent. Measures to prevent utility shutoffs reduced cases by 4.4 percent and deaths by 7.4 percent.
The Effects of Evictions and Shutoffs
Co-author Kay Jowers, a senior policy associate at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, explained why evictions led to higher rates of infection and death. When members of a household are evicted, they are often forced to move in with other households. “That brings more people into closer contact with each other,” Jowers said. “And in a lot of cases, those people are essential workers who can’t work from home, which creates the potential for further community spread.”
“Staying at home, working and schooling remotely and social distancing have been critical in addressing the public health crisis,” Timmins said. “But complying with these measures is difficult when your home and access to water and electricity are at risk.”
Timmins’ comment suggests that even just the threat of losing one’s home and access to basic amenities likely contributed to the severity of the pandemic. Too often, people have felt pressured to choose between staying safe and earning enough money in high-risk service sector jobs to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads.
Utility shutoffs also often pull people into a downward spiral that can lead them to lose their homes. “Once a household is in a financial situation that requires deferring utility payments to pay for food or other essentials, they often enter a debt cycle that can put them at risk of losing their housing,” Jowers said.
President Biden has signed an executive order to extend the federal eviction moratorium through March. He is also proposing $30 billion in rental assistance to help low- and moderate-income households affected by job loss and $5 billion to help Americans struggling to pay their utility bills. This is on top of the $25 billion in relief lawmakers have already approved to help renters pay for housing and utilities.
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