USA TODAY US Edition

For many, a $1,400 check is a lifeline

What stimulus means to ordinary Americans

- Romina Ruiz-Goiriena

It was supposed to be a two-week quarantine. Instead, it was a year of indescriba­ble loss.

Lost family. Lost jobs. Lost hope. COVID-19 ripped the country apart, killing more than 500,000 people and erasing years of economic gains. Months later, 10 million people remain unemployed. Nearly 40 million are being threatened with eviction as they brave the biggest housing crisis since the Great Depression. More than 79 million Americans say they can’t pay for electricit­y, water or heat.

And 50 million people are going hungry – up from 35 million before the outbreak. Families across the country, especially those of color, report a devastatin­g reality: there isn’t enough food on the table.

The House of Representa­tives could vote as soon as Friday on President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package, which would include $1,400

stimulus checks. If it passes, it would go to the Senate, where many Republican­s, who argue that assistance dissuades people from looking for work, are looking to cut out some of the provisions. Nearly 80% of adults said they need another economic assistance package, according to the Pew Research Center.

USA TODAY asked people around the country how they would spend $1,400.

For them, a stimulus check is more than cash.

Fourteen hundred dollars can stave off eviction or a utility shutoff. It can nurse a teenager back to health, provide seed money for a business, pay for an education and, in some cases, provide a new sense of freedom.

This is what they told us.

‘I don’t know how much more pain Isabell can take’

Stacy Rodriguez, 36, wipes down her daughter’s hospital bed with disinfecta­nt wipes. She then makes sure to squirt a glob of antibacter­ial gel in both hands before fixing her face mask.

This is her routine every time a staff member enters the room.

Rodriguez has been on a three-year journey to get medical care for her teenage daughter. Isabell suffers from pilonidal disease, a chronic skin infection that causes cysts to form in the crease between the buttocks. The painful cysts can create abscesses and sinus cavities, requiring surgery.

Her 14th operation should have been a one-day outpatient procedure in January. But complicati­ons have kept Isabell at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for five weeks, requiring biweekly dressing changes of the softball-sized open wound that must be done in an operation room while she is under sedation.

Isabell is in excruciati­ng pain; her mother hears her squall when she’s lying on her side. Rodriguez, who was hospitaliz­ed last year with COVID-19 and lost her stepfather to the virus in October, sobs uncontroll­ably every night, wondering if Isabell will get better soon or whether the virus will get to her first. Each dressing change costs $800. Rodriguez, the family’s sole breadwinne­r, hasn’t worked in more than a month because she has had to relocate to Ohio for the surgery, but the utilities and mortgage bills back in Indiana haven’t stopped coming in. And now her insurance provider is threatenin­g to not pay because the hospital isn’t part of the network, leaving Rodriguez to settle the $5,000-and-counting bill out of pocket.

Rodriguez scrambled to set up a GoFundMe page to cover the medical bills. But a stimulus check would be the only certainty in the middle of chaos, her only means to chip away at the spiraling costs for Isabell’s medical expenses and other bills.

“COVID has ruined my life,” Rodriguez says. “I just don’t know how much more pain Isabell can take.”

‘I’ve had to climb out of poverty, and now the pandemic is shoving me back in’

Misty Mcdade swore she would never put her three kids back in a trailer. But COVID-19 blew everything she worked so hard to achieve to smithereen­s.

In March, the 40-year-old was laid off from her six-figure accountant job at a top Fortune company in Morgantown, West Virginia. Mcdade didn’t receive unemployme­nt for seven months because of processing delays. She cashed out her 401(k) and savings to keep up with her $1,600 rent payment and the rest of the bills. She lost the health insurance coverage provided through her employer, which she depended on to care for her eldest son, who is on the autism spectrum and has bipolar disorder.

When her savings ran out, she moved the family from a 2,500-square-foot townhouse in a great public school district to a mobile home in the country. She got a job at a local nonprofit that pays $40,000 a year. She says she has done everything she can but is desperate.

Mcdade owes more than $1,100 in back utilities and two months on her car loan. She fears it could be repossesse­d any minute, leaving her without a reliable way to get to work.

“It feels like I failed, even though it wasn’t me,” she says.

She hopes to use the stimulus to pay what is owed on the car and utilities.

Mcdade has already rebuilt her life once before. Against a backdrop of abuse by her former husband, Mcdade says, she put herself through college, holding jobs in fast food while on public assistance. After the divorce, the children’s father was stripped of all parental rights in 2012.

“I’ve had to climb out of poverty, and now the pandemic is shoving me back in,” she says.

Most days there isn’t enough for anything – even food.

“I never wanted to have to tell them I don’t have the money for that,” she says with a cracked voice over the phone, “And I’m saying that about cereal.”

‘All I need to do is find a little extra’

Tiffany Velez, 38, plops herself on the bed to begin her nightly COVID-19 ritual.

She takes a sip of piping hot coffee from her favorite mug with a photo of 1990s teen idol Luke Perry.

The coffee will keep her awake and help her feel full.

Velez begins scouring the internet for digital coupons, looking at the notes she has typed on her phone of what products are on sale at which discount grocers in town. She maps out her route, accounting for every gas mile.

Velez is trying to save money on food to pay off the $1,300 her family owes in gas and electricit­y.

“All I need to do is find a little extra,” Velez says. “I keep thinking if we pay something every week they won’t shut the power off.”

A stimulus check would settle the balance, Velez says.

The family from Vineland, New Jersey, began struggling after Velez quit her Instacart shopper job when her 16year-old twins and her daughter in college were sent home from school in March. They’ve been living off her husband’s welding job.

The family now spends more than $1,000 a month on groceries. That’s about $3 per meal per person. Velez has cut out almost all meat and makes a lot of pasta. The twins had free lunch at school.

The U.S. Department of Agricultur­e estimates that the average cost of groceries for a low-income family of four is $155 to $205 a week.

“I hate what this virus has done to me,” Velez says. “My anxiety is through the roof. I’m on edge all the time. Thinking all the time. It never stops.”

‘This is my little castle’

It took Larry Thomas half his life and a deadly plague to get the keys to his tiny Harlem apartment in New York City.

Thomas, 59, served 21 years in prison. By the time his sentence was up in 2017, he had no surviving family. Within the span of a few hours as a free man, Thomas was homeless.

Thomas spent more than two years on and off the streets; working many jobs, unable to afford rent. His belongings fit inside a backpack, on top of a milk crate or inside an assigned locker.

When the pandemic hit, officials moved people out of shelters and into hotel rooms. Thomas was assigned a private room that allowed him to quarantine and a job as part of an outdoor cleaning crew that allowed him to save money and secure a rent-controlled apartment. He moved in November and began studying to become a certified peer counselor to help others like him.

The apartment has a bed, sofa, small dining table and TV purchased with the help of a local nonprofit.

If he received the stimulus, Thomas says, he would put it toward the things in the apartment that show he isn’t going anywhere: summer clothes to hang in the closet, picture frames for the photograph­s he takes of Central Park, and kitchenwar­e.

“It’s something as simple as a metal dish rack,” Thomas says. “This is my home. This is my little castle.”

‘We cannot traumatize our children anymore’

The Fergusons decided they weren’t going to let a health crisis go to waste.

Together, Tia Ferguson, 40, and her husband, Thomas Ferguson III, hatched a plan to get ahead financiall­y by saving to open their own businesses in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s a team effort. The family’s food budget is now $400 a month, consisting of a lot of plant-based meals and peanut butter. There are extra throw blankets around the house, and everyone doubles up on socks and sweaters. Use of appliances and screen time is limited. There’s no cable. The kids play board games, use painting sets and do crafts.

Each $1,400 check would be used as seed funding: She would put it toward a certificat­ion for her literacy tutoring business, and he would purchase a trailer for his mobile mechanics shop.

Saving for her future hasn’t come easy for Ferguson, a substitute teacher who was ordered by her doctor to stay away from in-person classrooms because she has diabetes, hypertensi­on and asthma, which puts her at high risk if she contracts COVID-19.

But breaking the generation­al poverty cycle is a priority for her family – especially after being in the throes of a foreclosur­e, bankruptcy and a high-risk pregnancy that ended in their fourth child being stillborn in December 2019.

Tia and Thomas Ferguson were unable to shield their kids from what was happening. They swore to never be in such a position again.

“This is why we are so staunch on living below our means to give our children the security and stability they need to grow,” Tia Ferguson says. “We cannot traumatize our children anymore.”

‘I’m having to create more debt’

After school closed for the summer in June, Katie Krupp was told not to return in the fall. Her teaching position had been canceled.

Krupp, 42, struggled to get unemployme­nt in Ohio, racking up credit card debt to pay for groceries.

She started having panic attacks and fell into depression. When the situation became even more untenable, she made the difficult decision to sell her home. “My whole life I had to give up,” she says.

Krupp found a new job as a teacher at a nearby charter school in Dayton, but it came with a 50% pay cut.

Seeing her employment prospects dwindle, Krupp enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to get an additional license that would allow her to teach special education.

She believes there will be a greater need for educators in the post-COVID-19 world. Parents from school districts across the country have said students nationwide are falling behind.

The certificat­ion costs about $7,000. A stimulus check would contribute to lowering the price tag – and Krupp’s anxiety.

‘The best gift you could give’

Michael Patterson, 38, has been living with a bullet in his back for two decades. He was shot at age 18 in Philadelph­ia, resulting in a lifelong spinal cord injury that left him unable to walk.

He is one of millions of Americans who long struggled before the arrival of COVID-19 and would benefit from a $1,400 check.

He moved to upstate New York in 2018 to work as an advocate at the University of Rochester. Patterson receives a small stipend in addition to his small income from the Social Security Administra­tion, which brings his total earnings to $13,000 – barely over the 2021 poverty line of $12,880. He gets $19 in monthly Supplement­al Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Patterson lives with his mother and a younger brother and contribute­s toward rent, leaving him with $700 for the rest of the month.

For more than 15 years, his insurance provider said it wouldn’t cover the cost of physical therapy equipment, including a standing frame to help him stand up straight and provide better digestion and relief to aching muscles and joints.

Patterson’s girlfriend found a used frame in Vermont for $800. His mom and brother also pitched in and purchased it at the end of January.

On Feb. 8, he stood up straight for the first time in more than a decade.

The standing frame has helped Patterson forge a path toward greater independen­ce. If he receives a stimulus, he hopes to help his mom fix up their family home and invest in a set of hand controls for a car he would be able to drive himself.

The modificati­ons cost about $1,500 and aren’t covered by Medicaid.

“It’s the best gift you could give somebody,” Patterson says. “Freedom!”

 ?? JASPER COLT/USA TODAY ?? Larry Thomas, 59, right, has escaped homelessne­ss in Harlem, N.Y. With a little extra money, he hopes to put down roots.
JASPER COLT/USA TODAY Larry Thomas, 59, right, has escaped homelessne­ss in Harlem, N.Y. With a little extra money, he hopes to put down roots.
 ?? PROVIDED BY TIA FERGUSON ?? The road has not been easy for Tia Ferguson, 40, and her family in Columbus, Ohio. With stimulus money likely on the way, she and her husband are working on a life-changing plan: opening their own businesses.
PROVIDED BY TIA FERGUSON The road has not been easy for Tia Ferguson, 40, and her family in Columbus, Ohio. With stimulus money likely on the way, she and her husband are working on a life-changing plan: opening their own businesses.
 ?? PROVIDED BY TIFFANY VELEZ ?? With money tight amid the pandemic, Tiffany Velez, 38, and her family in Vineland, New Jersey, have struggled to pay gas and electricit­y bills. A stimulus check would settle the balance of those bills, she says.
PROVIDED BY TIFFANY VELEZ With money tight amid the pandemic, Tiffany Velez, 38, and her family in Vineland, New Jersey, have struggled to pay gas and electricit­y bills. A stimulus check would settle the balance of those bills, she says.
 ?? PROVIDED BY MISTY MCDADE ?? Misty Mcdade, 40, with her children in Morgantown, West Virginia, lost her job as an accountant last March. She’s now two months behind on her car loan and fears it could be repossesse­d at any minute.
PROVIDED BY MISTY MCDADE Misty Mcdade, 40, with her children in Morgantown, West Virginia, lost her job as an accountant last March. She’s now two months behind on her car loan and fears it could be repossesse­d at any minute.
 ?? PROVIDED BY STACY RODRIGUEZ ?? Isabell Rodriguez, 15, being prepared for surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, has seen her mother struggle with medical bills.
PROVIDED BY STACY RODRIGUEZ Isabell Rodriguez, 15, being prepared for surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, has seen her mother struggle with medical bills.
 ?? PROVIDED BY ROBERT BELL ?? Michael Patterson, 38, stands for the first time in more than 15 years with the help of a special standing frame.
PROVIDED BY ROBERT BELL Michael Patterson, 38, stands for the first time in more than 15 years with the help of a special standing frame.
 ??  ?? Krupp
Krupp

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