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

Darlington Ocopu’s top priority has always been looking after his teenage twins. Originally from Ghana, he has lived in North Texas for almost a decade. And he built a good, stable life for his family before the pandemic by assembling auto parts in Arlington.

Okopu says he first felt the impact of the pandemic at work.

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

Then the working hours were reduced and the shifts postponed. In a short time, he says, the camp was closed.

After being furloughed, Okopu’s immigration status made him ineligible for unemployment. He’d gotten his green card just before the pandemic and hadn’t worked long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits Texas Workforce Commission. As other pandemic aid was approved by the federal government, he found much of it similarly unattainable.

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

“It was very tough, very tough,” he said. “And it came at a time when I’ve only singled out three things about my life: how to get money to pay my rent, pay my light bills, keep my car moving. That will keep my kids to myself.”

“A lot of it has affected our community”

Okopu managed to house and feed his children and turn on the lights. He avoided repossessing his car, which allowed him to continue working. But it’s cost him: In all, Okopu says he’s racked up around $18,000 in credit card debt.

By and large, in the first year of the pandemic, Americans paid off credit card balances swamped with stimulus payments and unable to spend money on restaurants and vacations. But amid that average drop, 30% of credit cardholders saw theirs balance increasesespecially parents of children under the age of 18, millennials and low-wage workers.

Navigating the pandemic has been stressful, and Okopu realized he was largely on his own figuring out how to care for his children. The rest of his family is still in Ghana, so he couldn’t count on their support. Nor was his close-knit church family in North Texas able to help.

“Eighty or 90 percent of them went through the same challenges,” he said. “You’re calling someone who’s telling you they’re dead. You’re calling someone, hey, Thomas had COVID, he’s dead. A lot of that has impacted our community.”

However, his lifesaver came in the form of help from Catholic Charities Fort Wort. The organization helped him pay some bills, but also provided him with a financial coach to help him find his way through uncertain times.

Myrna Robles, his clerk, says Okopu is just one of so many people still digging out the hole the pandemic has blown in their finances.

Christopher Connelly


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Myrna Robles is a financial wellness navigator for the Fort Worth Catholic Charities.

“It’s incredibly stressful to see someone 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 defaulted on my rent,’” Robles said.

Rebuilding after setbacks

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Robles’ clients at the Catholic charities mainly worked, had stable housing and kept up with their bills, but worked with her to build greater financial security. The pandemic has wiped out progress for so many families, she said, sending clients into survival mode.

“The majority of my clients in my caseload have increased their debt exponentially, taken out payday loans — what I call robbery loans — and are just drowning in the stress of either not being able to pay those loans or being unable to pay those credit cards maxing out their credit cards and still can’t make it,” she said.

Robles says it will take years for people to pay off the debt they took on to survive the pandemic. Some will probably never repay their debts. But on top of the debt, she believes the trauma still overshadows her clients.

However, Darlington Okopu are now on a firmer financial footing and are paying off their debts as quickly as possible.

He credits the help of Catholic charities for getting him through the worst of the pandemic, helping him in ways big and small, connecting him with rental support and even helping get school supplies for his kids.

Okopu took a job at the post office and hopes to gain full-time status and benefits soon. He’s already paid off two credit cards and his credit score has gone up by more than a hundred points.

But like many North Texans, Ocopu’s finances depend in part on available work hours.

“Last year, for Thanksgiving, we had a lot of hours at the post office, so I had more hours,” he said. “I took this opportunity to pay a little more than the minimum payment. After Christmas the hours started going down so I’m back to minimum payments.”

Nevertheless, he is satisfied with the progress and sees further successes to come.

“It’s a matter of time. That too will pass,” he told his children in the worst case of the pandemic. “And little by little we’re going through it.”

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