• U.S.
  • COVID-19

Americans Agonize Over Coronavirus Stimulus Payments, Worried That $1,200 Isn’t Enough

5 minute read

(Bloomberg) — Melanie Hayes and tens of millions of other Americans are asking the same question as stimulus checks begin to arrive: How do I prioritize spending a one-time relief payment that won’t be enough?

Hayes and her family will receive $3,400 — $1,200 apiece for herself and husband, Matt, and $500 for each of their two children. The plan was to use it to cover two months of mortgage payments on their house in Chesapeake, Virginia, where they own the Cutting Edge Cafe.

“And that’s probably what we’re going to do,” Hayes, 33, said. “But then in the middle of all of this, Matt’s car finally died on us.”

The cafe is still in business, filling take-out and delivery orders, but sales are down by at least 50%, Hayes said. Would the $3,400 be better applied there? Another tough question.

“I’m grateful for any sort of help we’re getting,” she said, “but it’s not going to go far for us.”

Read more: Stimulus Payments Are Being Sent to Millions of Americans This Week. Here’s How to Get Yours Faster

The Internal Revenue Service processed more than 80 million stimulus payments on April 10 in a centerpiece of a $2.2 trillion effort to shore up the battered U.S. economy. Americans earning $75,000 or less, or $150,000 and below as a couple, are eligible for the full $1,200 payout per adult, plus $500 for each child under 17.

“This is not enough money to keep most families afloat,” said Sandra Black, an economics professor at Columbia University and a Brookings Institution senior fellow. “And this shutdown is far from over.”

That reality is adding to the pressure for another round of federal assistance in the coronavirus pandemic. Some Democrats, including House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters of California, have proposed that thousands of dollars a month be allocated for families until the health crisis ends.

The impact of the checks will vary widely. For many — if not most — of those who have lost jobs or seen incomes plunge, the Economic Impact Payment, as it’s called, won’t cover expenses alone. At least 22 million Americans have filed jobless claims so far, and some who are still working have seen their wages cut.

Moreover, some lenders reportedly are garnishing the stimulus payments of customers who are overdrawn.

“It is essential to keep in mind the critical feature of this shock: It hits people very unevenly,” said Juan Sanchez, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

For Larrilou Carumba in San Francisco, the stimulus money will barely be a bridge. She’s been on unpaid furlough from her $26-an-hour housekeeping job at a four-star hotel since early March. She’s still paying contributions to her health-care plan while her union fights to keep those benefits in place.

“I have a lot of bills,” said Carumba, 47. She plans to use a chunk of the $2,200 check she received Wednesday to cover expenses, including on her $10,000 in credit-card debt.

She’s been offered deferrals on her car and credit-card payments, but that means she’ll owe more down the road, she said, and she wants to stay current to maintain a good credit rating so she can access student loans for her children.

Read more: The Evil Tucked Into the $2 Trillion Coronavirus Stimulus Bill

Even for people still working, the specter of lost income will linger and potentially affect spending and saving habits well into the future.

Rolando Trevino, an electrician who installs power systems for telecommunications infrastructure in San Antonio, Texas, has an “essential” job and makes about $65,000 a year. It has not been lost on him that some of his colleagues have been furloughed.

Considering his relatively flush position, he was surprised when his $1,200 stimulus check showed up in his bank account. He thought briefly about paying off his $1,000 Visa card balance. Then he decided to hoard the windfall as a cushion against further deterioration in economic conditions.

“It’s good to have a little set aside. I mean, if this goes on through the summertime,” he said. “You never know.”

In Boxford, Mass., Amanda Bridge is struggling to figure it all out. Just before the pandemic, she moved the two children she was in the process of adopting to her parents’ farm where she also lives, thinking that what it has to offer — horses, goats, chickens and a donkey — would be the ideal family setting.

The stimulus money will fund “food, bills and entertainment” and possibly a kiddie pool as the weather gets warmer, said Bridge, 34, who’s still employed from home in her human-resources job.

Meanwhile, David Klotz, 38, a senior graphic designer for a Houston engineering company, views the $1,200 as a sort of bonus that won’t make a huge difference, even though his annual income just dropped 9% to less than $72,000 when his employer cut salaries. “I’m going to let it sit in the bank, and I’ll have it if I need it,” Klotz said. “But even if I did need it, it would not be enough to get me by long-term.”

The truth is that for most Americans, he said, “it’s chump change in the long run.”

— With assistance from Laura Davison and Jef Feeley.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com