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The novel coronavirus pandemic continues to take a powerful toll on the US. Thirty million people have lost their jobs in just six weeks. The Urban Institute reports that more than 30 percent of adults have reduced spending on food, 43 percent have put off major purchases, and nearly 28 percent have tapped savings accounts or increased credit card debt.
To put a face on this, in late April I asked 15 of my friends and family how the pandemic is affecting them and whether they are benefitting from the more than $2 trillion in government programs approved by Congress over the past two months.
The responses from this non-representative sample were somewhat discouraging. A third lost their jobs and have applied for unemployment benefits—mostly with little success. Four applied for Small Business Administration loans, with mixed success. And several still were awaiting their coronavirus relief payments.
The centerpiece of government assistance so far is the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act. It was intended to provide economic support in four ways: (1) expanded unemployment insurance (UI) benefits; (2) assistance for large businesses, state and local governments, and hospitals, (3) loans through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and tax credits for employers who retain their work force; and (4) direct relief payments to individuals.
What’s it like to be—or not be—on the receiving end of expanded UI benefits, PPP loans, or direct payments?
Expanded Unemployment Insurance Benefits: Too Slow
The CARES Act expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to include the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig economy workers through the end of the year. It increased most weekly payments by $600 through July 31 and extended unemployment benefits by 13 weeks. In most states benefits typically expire after 26 weeks. The problem: State websites and telephone lines have been overwhelmed by the newly unemployed.
Of my 15 friends, five have been trying to file UI claims and only one has been completely successful. In California, a respondent’s spouse was denied benefits because the self-employment section of the state’s UI claims site wasn’t operational. In Michigan, another friend tried for a month to get technical support from the state’s unemployment agency. A North Carolinian waited 37 days before receiving benefits. One Pennsylvania resident has been unable to enter information on a website that went live on April 19. Another applied within two days of being laid off in mid-March, but still had not received benefits as of April 24.
My friends are not alone. An Economic Policy Institute study finds that for every 10 people who have successfully applied for unemployment benefits during this crisis, another three or four couldn’t get through the overloaded systems, and two more didn’t even apply because the systems are so hard to navigate. Indeed, in some states the system may be difficult by design, as The New York Times reports.
Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans: Too Scattered
Four of those surveyed applied for the first round of PPP loans on behalf of their firms, also with mixed results.
The executive director of one nonprofit organization had an easy time. Her bank was very helpful and her organization received the loan quickly. Chalk up one success.
But the other applicants had far less luck. The banks of two were unable to process the loan paperwork. One friend learned his organization’s PPP loan was approved just a day before all funds run out. His business still is waiting for a payment. The same person serves on a nonprofit board that was unable to complete an application before funding ran out. Maybe they’ll have better luck with the second round of small business loans Congress enacted late last month.
Coronavirus Relief Payments: Too Small
The CARES Act provides an “economic impact payment” of up to $1,200 for adults ($2,400 for couples filing jointly) and an additional $500 for each dependent child under the age of 17. The payment phases out as income rises from $75,000 to $90,000 for individuals and for couples making between $150,000 and $198,000.
Seven of those I surveyed expected to receive a payment. But as of May 4, only one had received a payment by direct deposit. One other friend refused to give direct deposit information to the IRS after years of difficulties with tax debts and will wait for a paper check.
What will they do with the money? Nearly all my friends said they’d pay bills, pay taxes, or purchase food and other stay-at-home necessities. One said she’d give her rebate to her 21-year-old son. Another who has been laid off will use the money to help find a new place to live.
Eight respondents exceeded the income eligibility threshold and did not expect a payment. One thought that giving a rebate payment to households earning up to $190,000 was a “nice gesture” rather than relief or stimulus. Another wished the payments “could have gone to people who really need it even sooner." One noted that for many, $1,200 would barely cover one month’s rent. The national median rent for a one-bedroom apartment by the end of 2019 was $1,078.
What’s next for Americans who are struggling financially?
Congress is starting to negotiate yet another relief bill, perhaps including more support targeted specifically for small businesses and additional aid for state and local governments. But what about my limited, unscientific sample of workers struggling with unemployment and managers trying to keep their firms afloat?
For them, focused, timely, and sufficient relief can’t come soon enough.
The Tax Hound, publishing once a month, helps make sense of tax policy for those outside the tax world by connecting tax issues to everyday concerns. Have a question or an idea? Send Renu an email.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
Matt Rourke/AP Photo