South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Jobless aid to soon cut off for millions

Many counting on Congress to extend federal programs

- By Christophe­r Rugaber and Casey Smith

INDIANAPOL­IS— Tina Morton recently faced a choice: Pay bills — or buy a birthday gift for a child? Derrisa Green is falling further behind on rent. Sylvia Soliz has had her electricit­y cut off.

Unemployme­nt has forced aching decisions on millions of Americans and their families in the face of a rampaging pandemic that has closed shops and restaurant­s, paralyzed travel and left millions jobless for months. Now, their predicamen­ts stand to grow bleaker yet if

Congress fails to extend two unemployme­nt programs that are set to expire theday after Christmas.

If no agreement is reached in negotiatio­ns taking place on Capitol Hill,

more than 9 million people will lose federal jobless aid that averages about $320 a week and that typically serves as their only source of income.

Green, 39, and her husband are among them. An end to their unemployme­nt benefits would force them to keep missing rent payments on their home in Dyer, Indiana. The couple have eight children. Green’s husband is a self-employed truck driver whose business disappeare­d when the pandemic erupted in the spring. Only in October did he start to pick up occasional work.

He now receives about

$235 a week in unemployme­nt aid. Even so, “all of our bills are late,” Green said.

“That’s really scary,” Green added, “because what are we going to do when we lose the unemployme­nt money?”

On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden called on Congress to quickly approve a bipartisan $908 billion package thatwould establish a $300-a-week jobless benefit as well as send aid to states and localities, help schools and universiti­es, revive subsidies for businesses and support transit systems and airlines. Details are still being worked out, but the outlines of a final bill could emerge soon.

More than 20 million people are now receiving unemployme­nt benefits. More than half are beneficiar­ies of two programs that were part of rescue aid legislatio­n Congress enacted in March. One program made self- employed and contract workers eligible for jobless aid for the first time and provided 39 weeks of support. The other program supplied 13weeks of extended benefits to the

26 weeks that most states provide.

About 9.1 million who are receiving aid from those programs will be cut off Dec. 26, according to a report from the Century Foundation. An additional

4.4 million are expected to exhaust all 39 weeks by year’s end. If Congress agrees to provide more weeks of aid and to revive both programs, those beneficiar­ies could keep receiving aid next year.

That would be a lifesaver for Sylvia Soliz, who lives in Corpus Christi, Texas. Soliz, 36, who still owes part of her rent for November and December, has received an eviction notice. She’s also just had her electricit­y cut off.

In March, Soliz was laid off fromher job as a nurse’s assistant at a senior living facility. She’s now receiving $414in jobless aid every twoweeks. With four children, it doesn’t go very far.

“The day I get it, it’s already gone because my kids need so many things,” Soliz said. “Of course, I have to pay a portion to whatever bill Ihave, so that way I can stretch it out. But every time another check comes in, it’s another bill.”

Soliz is applying for a new job, and she checks in with her old employer. So far, no luck. She also worries about contractin­g

COVID-19. Soliz is hopeful that Congress will agree to provide more aid, but she feels “they are basically gambling with us.”

A cutoff of jobless benefits now, with so many millions of Americans still receiving the aid, would be unusually early compared with previous recessions. In the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008

2009, the government extended unemployme­nt benefits to 99 weeks, and the additional aid lasted through 2013. When that program ended, about 1.3 million people lost benefits— a small fraction of the number who would lose jobless aid this time.

Other government protection­s will also expire at the end of this year, including a federal moratorium on evictions for renters. A suspension of payments on federal student loans will expire at the end of January.

“I am very afraid of people facing homelessne­ss — that’s our top concern,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “It’s a terrible unforced policy error to make.”

About one in six renters in the United States are behind on their rent, according to a survey from the Census Bureau. And

12% of adults say their families didn’t have enough to eat at some point in the past week, the survey found. That’s up from just

3.7% in 2019, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Across the country, a cutoff of jobless aid would disproport­ionately affect Black Americans, according to data from the Century Foundation. About

18% of unemployme­nt aid recipients are Black, the Foundation said, though Black Americans make up just 12% of the workforce. More than 57% of recipients are white. Nearly 13% are Latino. (There is no demographi­c data on about one-fifth of recipients.)

Tina Morton used to clean houses near where she lives in Winchester, Kentucky. But there’s been little work since the pandemic struck. Like many other single mothers, she has struggled with the need to find another job while simultaneo­usly caring for children — a son and two nephews she has custody of — who are attending school online at home.

“Single parents cannot go out here and just find any job,” said Morton, 39. “We’ve got our kids here that are stuck at home.”

Last week, Morton had to choose between paying a phone bill and buying one of her nephews a birthday present. (She got him a present.) If her jobless aid ends, she expects to face painful decisions.

She’s particular­ly worried about her nephews.

“That’s what hurts me the most,” she said. “My job is to give them more— give them better than where they came from.”

 ?? ALEXWONG/GETTY ?? President-elect Joe Biden called onCongress on Friday to approve an aid package.
ALEXWONG/GETTY President-elect Joe Biden called onCongress on Friday to approve an aid package.

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