Joe Benincasa

Joe Benincasa is the president and CEO of the Actors Fund and has served in the organization since 1989.

The Actors Fund, a charitable services organization that provides support for artists, recently conducted a national survey to assess the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its findings foreshadow severe long-term impacts for artists of all kinds, with the majority of respondents reporting lost income and housing, sustained food insecurity and declining mental health.

The survey was conducted to help the Actors Fund understand what it can do to better serve the needs of the actors, musicians, dancers, radio workers, and other artists and performers it aids. With programs traditionally focused around health care, housing and direct payments, leaders at the fund realized the pandemic would dramatically impact their future operations. 

Joe Benincasa, president and CEO of the Actors Fund, specifically pointed out the ways the fund will need to step up to help artists as the world starts moving past the pandemic.

“We wanted to better understand their needs,” Benincasa said. “We know that the pandemic may be ending in many ways, but for people in the entertainment community it has a long tail. They haven’t been working. They may have accumulated debt.”

That lack of work manifested in the survey’s economic findings. First, it found artists’ median household income last year was $34,186 — barely over half the overall median household income in Los Angeles. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed reported this as a loss of income. 

In entertainment, 62% of respondents lost part-time employment, and nearly 50% lost full-time employment. This loss of income combined with the lack of savings usually associated with gig employment led many struggling artists to the Actors Fund, putting pressure on the organization’s health care and direct payment programs as they shifted to online services. 

“Overnight, we basically converted how we provide service,” Benincasa said. “The service side we got going right away. Our organization has grown a great deal, but it reflects what the community tells us we need.”

By far the most pervasive issue was mental health. The survey found nearly 80% of artists had suffered some kind of negative mental health impact. While not explicit in its definition, the mounting pressure for the 40% who reported food insecurity and 28% who fell behind on rent or mortgage likely contributed to the en masse decline. 

BIPOC respondents felt these effects even harder. They were also more likely across the board to experience food insecurity, forced housing change, and increased credit card or other debt. 

“The last year has exposed how vulnerable people in our community are,” Benincasa said. “We need to continue to provide critical support while the industry safely returns to work, and we intend to continue to explore ways to ensure more access to our services going forward.”

Under Benincasa’s leadership, the Actors Fund centers its services around health care and housing. The former targets gig workers, whose unstable employment often leads to a lack of coverage or high health care costs, especially as their work dried up over the past year. The health care program has become even more important, as workers who once relied on professional guilds — like the Screen Actors Guild — for their insurance were unable to work enough weeks during the pandemic to qualify for coverage. 

But aside from comprehensive insurance, the fund also provides emergency supplementary aid to artists undergoing expensive treatments they might not be able to afford even with coverage.

For housing, the fund has built affordable residences across the United States, including housing in New York City for people living with HIV and an assisted living home for former artists in New Jersey. In LA, the fund built the Palm View in West Hollywood, which offers apartments to entertainment industry professionals, specifically targeting those working with disabilities who make less than $38,000 a year. Benincasa described the Palm View complex as a “space for working artists, very broadly defined.”

The Palm View was recently caught in controversy after the Actors Fund requested residents leave for building renovations last September. This inspired limited demonstrations by a small number of residents who felt they were being pushed out of their homes during the throes of the pandemic.

“We’ve always known that these gig workers have low incomes,” Benincasa said. “Not every person working in entertainment is a multibillionaire. So they need affordable housing; they need health insurance and health care. We’ve been able to help a lot of people get health insurance on the marketplace.”

Changing housing reveals another of the survey’s significant findings — how artists moved. As many artists struggled to make rent, some 20% had to move from their previous homes. Of them, a full 7% were forced to not only leave LA but the state of California. And an additional 12% of respondents expressed concern they would lose their housing once eviction moratoriums end.  

“Performers, they’re going to be taking a while to get back to earning a living,” Benincasa said. “It’s really hard to tell (what will happen. It’s the) one thing that we do know in our strategic plan that’s still being built right now.”

This survey was largely in service to that upcoming public-facing strategic plan — which is set to be published in June. It aimed to take stock of the entertainment community post-COVID-19 and allow the fund to shift its service efforts to better serve impacted workers. As it moves to better address their needs, the fund hopes to raise awareness for its work and continue to provide housing, health care and general support to entertainment workers across the nation.

“I think the work of the Actors Fund (is) essential,” Benincasa said. “I kept thinking, especially during the pandemic, what the world would be like without Netflix, without those artists lifting their spirits. They’re dedicated to their craft, dedicated to the arts and they’re responsible. I think that’s inspiring.”