‘No One Can Live on That.’ Unemployed Americans Wait While Washington Debates

Photo showing protestors demanding economic relief in New York City. Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images
Protesters demand economic relief on Aug. 5 in New York City.

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More than a week has passed since the expiration of extended $600 per week federal unemployment benefits, and millions of Americans still without work have little clarity on what the future holds.

Rachel Burke, 37, is a recruiting professional in California who lost her job in a mass layoff in April. 

She says two months passed with no income before she received any unemployment insurance funds, due to a processing issue. When Burke finally did start receiving benefits, the $600 weekly federal benefit, plus $300 in California state benefits – along with deferred mortgage payments – made it possible for her to make ends meet.

“But now it’s gone,” Burke says, referring to the additional federal benefits. “Without the $600, I’m going to get $1,200 a month. No one can live on that in California.”

Federal benefits under the CARES Act ended July 31, and there is no agreement among legislators on how to move forward.

With the benefits in limbo, an eviction cliff looming, and new COVID-19 cases forcing many states to backtrack on reopening, millions of Americans like Burke have lost a critical lifeline as Congress debates a fix.

Ongoing Negotiations

Since late July, Congressional leaders have been in a stalemate regarding what another federal aid package may look like.

The Democratic-run House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act in May, a $3 trillion package which, among other relief, would provide another round of stimulus payments, allocate $175 billion toward helping renters and homeowners cover housing costs, and extend the $600 federal benefit through January. 

The Republican-run Senate took no action on the HEROES Act, waiting until late July to introduce a much smaller $1 trillion HEALS Act proposal. Senate Republicans’ plan includes another round of stimulus checks as well, along with aid for small businesses, but extended federal unemployment benefits would be reduced to $200 per week through September, then total 70% of previous wages (when combined with state benefits) starting in October.

With the timeline and specifics of any deal in Washington still unknown, millions are left trying to bridge the gap today. 

How to Prepare for the Unknown

“All of the uncertainty makes it incredibly difficult to plan,” says Mariel Beasley, a behavioral scientist at Duke University’s Common Cents Lab. “It makes it difficult for people to take the necessary steps for a prolonged recovery.”

Those most affected may experience a decision paralysis, and inability to address the emergencies that are coming down the line, Beasley says.

She recommends pre-committing to small actions that can keep you from going without food or being evicted if you’re facing financial hardship, like visiting a food pantry to supplement your food budget or looking into alternative housing options. 

Set a trigger event for yourself. “If there’s not a decision in Congress by Aug. 15, then I am going to start looking for a different housing option or look at what it would take to move in with family,” Beasley gives as an example. “It doesn’t matter if there’s a decision on Aug. 17, you’ve already started the planning process.” 

A ‘Double Whammy’ of Uncertainty 

Julianna Pagano, 23, started a new position with a temp office in March. At the end of her second week, she says, she was laid off.

With the $600 weekly federal benefit, along with $600 in weekly New Jersey state benefits, Pagano says she was able to build her savings over the past months while living with family. After losing the federal benefits, she considers herself lucky to be able to survive each week and get her bills paid.

But her employment situation remains up in the air: Pagano lives with three high-risk family members and concern for their health makes it unclear when employment may be safe again.

“I have no idea when I’m going to be able to go back to work,” she said in a Twitter message. “My new worry is wondering when I’ll be able to find a new job without putting my family at risk.” 

The U.S. added 1.8 million jobs in July, a reduction from quick gains in May and June which experts believe could signal a slowdown of recovery made so far. As businesses remain reluctant or unable to hire amid surging virus numbers across the country, many believe an unemployment safety net is needed now more than ever. 

Americans face a “double whammy” of uncertainty, Beasley says. “It’s uncertainty about what Congress will do and the actual benefits, but it’s also uncertainty about the pandemic.” 

“The public health crisis isn’t over,” says Kali Grant, a senior economic analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality’s Economic Security & Opportunity Initiative. According to Grant, losing federal benefits means that “workers and families will fall through the cracks, and this economic recession will be far longer and far deeper than it needs to be.”

“If we want to support our economy and help our workers get back to work, we should focus on controlling the virus, stabilizing the child care sector, and ensuring safe workplaces.” 

How to Find Resources

Begin seeking assistance sooner rather than later. Prepare for any scenario, whether that’s being unemployed longer than expected or getting by with a reduced amount of federal aid.

Look for rent and mortgage relief programs from local municipalities and city government agencies. Search for community groups, food banks, and pantries that can provide nutritional support. 

Begin looking into federal and state resources as well. Contact your creditors and lenders to ask for hardship assistance or forbearance. Continue following up with your state’s unemployment office about your benefits timeline. Determine whether you qualify for other benefits, such as SNAP, TANF, and state health coverage.

Research qualification requirements now if you might face food insecurity or eviction in the coming weeks, even if you don’t need assistance today.

“Much earlier than they are, people should start utilizing those services,” Beasley says. “Think of it as a supplement.”