State Watch

Why 2020 really was the worst year ever

When 2020 passes into the history books, it will carry more superlatives than a high school yearbook — and none of them good. Most deadly, hottest, most stressful, worst.

It is not your imagination: By a host of measures, 2020 was the worst year many Americans will have experienced in their lifetimes. It was a year of loss, of anxiety, of poverty and of disease. Recovering from the last 12 months is likely to define the entire decade ahead.

Americans will remember this year by the pandemic that has infected millions of friends, neighbors and family members. As of publication, nearly 18 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus, a number that is growing by a quarter-million a day.

More than 318,000 people in the U.S. have died of the novel coronavirus that emerged sometime in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, spreading across the globe with alarming speed and changing life as we know it.

The economic damage the virus has wrought doesn’t show up in stock market indices, which zoomed to record highs this year. But it has reverberated for millions of Americans who have lost jobs, income and stability.

Nearly half of Americans say they have lost income since March, when the Census Bureau began tracking the economic fallout of the pandemic. The impact has fallen disproportionately on minorities — Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to say they lost income than are whites — and on those who make less than $50,000 a year and those who do not have a college degree.

There are fewer jobs in America today than there were in November 2015. There are fewer private sector jobs in the country than there were when President Trump took office. 

And while the unemployment rate has fallen from its highs in the immediate aftermath of the harshest lockdowns, it appears so low because a startlingly high number of Americans have given up looking for jobs. The labor force participation rate — the percentage of civilians over the age of 16 who are in the workforce — was lower in September than at any point since the summer of 1976, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The leisure and hospitality sectors have been hardest hit, as tourism ground to a halt to stop the virus. Almost half of tourism-related jobs in Hawaii have vanished; 49 states and the District of Columbia saw their leisure and hospitality sectors decline over the last year, according to an analysis by the demographer Cheryl Russell.

Almost 1 in 6 restaurants in the United States are closed, either permanently or for the long term. That’s a loss of an estimated 110,000 businesses — and it’s not just new places that haven’t established themselves yet. The average restaurant that has closed was open for 16 years, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Those business losses are translating into very real pain for low-income families who were struggling to get by even before the pandemic.

Almost 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since March, reversing a years-long trend of falling poverty rates. Poverty has risen every month since June, according to a report from scholars at the University of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame and the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities. Almost a quarter of those with a high school education or less now find themselves living below the poverty line.

Between February and April, the last month for which statistics are available, more than 3 million households and 6 million individuals signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps. More than 27 million people told Census Bureau interviewers earlier this month they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat over the last week.

Nearly a quarter of households that rent have not paid any rent this month, the lowest rate all year, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Eviction moratoriums have kept millions in their homes, but those eviction bans will expire at some point in the new year, risking a wave of homelessness at a time when homelessness is already on the rise.

At the same time, there are signs that the pandemic is disrupting normal life in ways that could have longer-lasting consequences. Data from 33 states analyzed by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows enrollment in K-12 public schools has declined by about 2 percent, or half a million students.

The number of students who filled out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, an early indication about the number of students who will apply to college, is down 18 percent — and down most significantly in rural states such as West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Arkansas and Oklahoma, according to The Hechinger Report, a publication that covers the education system.

Around the country, violent crime has surged to levels not seen in a quarter-century. After years of declining crime rates, murder rates are at multidecade highs in both big and small cities, from Houston and Chicago to Tacoma, Wash., and Albuquerque, N.M. Final data from the FBI won’t be released until next year, though the trends are uniformly higher.

Law enforcement and health officials are reporting an alarming rise in the number of overdose deaths, reversing the earliest glimmers of hope that the country had gotten a handle on the opioid crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors 38 jurisdictions that report overdose rates; in 37 of those jurisdictions, the number of overdoses has risen this year. Ten Western states are reporting overdoses nearly doubling, led by a resurgence in the use of methamphetamines.

In San Francisco, many more people have died of overdoses this year than have died of the coronavirus.

Even the climate is showing signs of getting worse before it gets better. This year is on track to be the warmest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations body that keeps tabs on climate data.

In the Western Hemisphere, residents of the Caribbean and the Southern United States experienced the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. The 30 named storms that barreled across the Atlantic this year topped the 28 that occurred in 2005.

In the Western United States, firefighters battled one of the most active wildfire seasons in recorded history. More than 10.2 million acres burned; in California alone, almost 4 percent of the entire state caught fire.

There are more troubling signs even beyond the scope and scale of the disaster seasons: Both the wildfire season and the hurricane season started earlier and ended later than has been typical in recent years.

The cascade of terrible trend lines that has marred 2020 is taking a toll on Americans. One in 5 say their mental health is worse now than it was at this point last year, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association, including more than a third of Generation Z. About two-thirds of Americans told researchers they felt nervous, anxious or on edge for at least several days in the last week.

There are silver linings encircling the very dark clouds gathered over the year: Federal officials have approved two vaccines against the coronavirus. Economic fundamentals appear poised for a robust recovery once the health crisis passes.

But after a tough year of loss and suffering, no one will be sorry when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. Go home, 2020. 

Tags Climate change Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Poverty Unemployment

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