COVID aid from Washington has ended. The need for it hasn’t, however.
When I wrote recently about household finances getting tighter, I asked readers to flesh out the numbers with their own stories. Dozens of responses reveal the same polarization evident across the political spectrum. Many folks wrote to describe how they’re still underwater and could use a lift, while a vocal minority said Washington has done enough and it’s time for people to stand on their own two feet.
David Green, 51, is a union electrician in the Bay Area who can’t get reliable work because material shortages keep delaying projects. One eight-month project building a battery facility wound down last October, and since then he’s signed up for three additional projects. But each has been postponed because contractors can’t get required parts, including basic stuff such as wire, nuts, bolts and masks that would ordinarily be on the shelf at Home Depot.
“The supply chain’s killing us,” Green says. “Biden is talking about semiconductors but not about the meat and potatoes to build American again. For me, it’s wire and pipe, so we can put electrical in the walls.”
Since last October, Green has worked about one-third what he would work on a full-time schedule. The only other time work was so slow was during the housing bust and the Great Recession of 2008. With two kids in college, he says financial resources are “getting down to vapor.”
Green doesn’t want another stimulus check or federal benefit. “Nothing’s free, I get it,” he says. “I’m doing my part to fix what I can, within my realm. Hopefully the government, with the supply chains, is going to fix it, because my hands are tied.”
The end of the expanded child tax credit
COVID-related federal benefits such as stimulus payments, supplemental jobless aid and an expanded child tax credit ended in 2021, with pressure now mounting on some family budgets. Polling by Morning Consult shows the portion of adults who lack a month’s worth of emergency savings jumped from 22.3% in December to 29% in January, which correlates with the end of the partially advanceable child tax credit.
President Biden and many Democrats in Congress want to continue that benefit in 2022, but there’s not enough support even within their own party to get the 51 votes needed for passage in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has raised the possibility of more targeted stimulus measures that probably wouldn’t include direct aid to workers, but might help industries still roiled by COVID, such as restaurants and other services businesses.
Nick Clidas of Greece, NY, near Rochester, runs just that type of business. As a massage therapist with a private practice, he shut down completely during COVID, then reopened last June. Business is only around 60% of pre-COVID levels, however, forcing him to sublet office space, with no money left to promote his services. Clidas used unemployment insurance to help cover business-related bills, but with that gone, he’s now thinking of giving up the overhead of an office and shifting to consulting. He’s 73, but can’t afford to retire.
“Finances have gotten worse in the last year,” he says. “We’re not poor, but we’re getting by and not much else.”
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'Many people are not in the position I am'
The dividing line between those thriving amid COVID and those derailed by it is often circumstantial: Working in the wrong field, enduring an illness or simply having young kids has left many Americans in difficult straits. Eva Wegleitner, 47 of Portland, Oregon got laid off in January of 2020, shortly after her husband suffered liver failure. When COVD hit, she found it impossible to find a new job and care for her husband at the same time. His disability payments helped cover the bills, but those stopped when he died in July 2020. Wegleitner has survived since then on savings, stimulus checks and jobless aid, but that money has all dried up, and she has taken in a roommate to help with expenses.
She plans to start a 40-hour a week job soon, but still, she says, “My financial situation got totally wrecked by COVID.”
Child care concerns are another circumstantial factor that has left some parents with painful choices to make. Astrid Morgan of Harrisonburg, Virginia had a busy job as a personal trainer and fitness instructor prior to COVID. But her school-age son has struggled during the pandemic, and she feels compelled to stay home with him until things improve. Stimulus checks and some jobless aid helped her get by, but she’s now running short. Another problem is a tax return tied up in red tape.
“The outlook is very bleak,” she says. “Could I go out and work? Yes. Can I in good conscience leave my son home? Absolutely not. How does any mother’s outlook on life feel when she is staring at an empty bank account, stacks of bills, and children she refuses to let down?”
Circumstances have benefited others. One auto-dealer employee wrote in to say he’s made more money during the pandemic, as demand for cars surged and prices soared.
“I am aware many people are not in the position I am,” he says. “But there is also the aspect of doing what needs to be done and having to suck it up. The only person responsible for your wellbeing is you. Not the government.”
We got a lot of input like that from people who feel too much government aid has allowed some workers to stay home instead of looking for a job. Reality is more complicated, but skepticism about the virtues of pandemic aid pervades Congress as well. Republicans broadly oppose more aid and even some Democrats think the cost of further benefits, such as another year of the expanded child tax credit, is too high, especially given that the unemployment rate has dipped to 3.9% and there are millions of open jobs.
The specter of COVID is long, however. One woman wrote to tell us she left her job in 2020 because she was worried about catching COVID—and is still worried. Federal aid helped her weather the pandemic but with that gone, her bank account has emptied and she's living with her daughter.
“I don’t know why financial help is being stopped, while the pandemic hasn’t,” she says. “Aren’t we still in the pandemic?” Depends on whom you ask, apparently.
Rick Newman is a columnist and author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.