It’s been over a month since tens of millions of Americans saw their weekly income slashed by $600 after the federal unemployment supplement was whisked away in late July. The fact that it paid out $600/week was controversial from the get-go. Critics said the number was way too high, giving people "free license to do nothing." The debate showed how out of touch some lawmakers are about living expenses — not unlike Arrested Development's Lucille Bluth asking of a banana, “what could it cost, ten dollars?” — seemingly unaware of how many Americans struggle with even basic necessities like keeping a roof over their head. A quarter of renters spent over half their income on housing in 2018, for example, and among those making between $15,000 and $29,999 a year, 43% were spending the same. Without the extra unemployment, state benefits replace less than half of your lost income. It’s no wonder that over 40 million people are at risk of eviction now.
The unemployment boost, which was provided by the CARES Act passed in March, still hasn’t been extended by Congress. Democrats and Republicans left for August recess unable to agree on how much unemployment money to give in the next stimulus bill, with Republicans maintaining that $600 was unfeasible and unnecessary.
But how do the people actually impacted by the $600 unemployment boost feel about it? What did the extra money allow them to do during the few months it was in effect — and what did losing it take away from their lives?
Morgan, 25, was furloughed from her job at the university where she’s currently a PhD student. “I was able to save money for the first time in graduate school,” she says of receiving the extra $600 a month. “It was extremely beneficial to not have to worry about income for the first time in four years of graduate school. My stipend varies year to year, but it’s around $10,000 to $15,000, so I’m normally just trying to stay afloat. I saved around $3,500 to bring my total savings up to $5,000 after the stimulus check.”
Now that the $600 boost is gone, she’s getting just $92 a week from Mississippi’s state unemployment program, undoing the progress she made in saving. “I’ve had to dip into my savings for basic expenses like rent and food and have limited my spending to only necessities,” she says. “When I received unemployment benefits, my income was higher than my normal pay during the academic year. I’m not able to work my two other jobs due to the pandemic. I normally babysit a couple times a week and work catering jobs some nights and most weekends.”
R.M., 26, started receiving unemployment benefits in May in New York. Without the $600, her budget is so tight that she can’t afford fresh vegetables — or health insurance. “I can no longer cover my COBRA payment. With this loss, I’ll have to go into savings to cover rent,” she says. “[The $600 boost] helped a lot for my mom too, who is also unemployed,” she says. “I now have two households I have to help out with monetarily.”
According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 12 million people may have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance due to COVID-19. For Corritta, 31, losing health insurance led her to leave the country altogether. She lost her job as an HRIS analyst at the end of July, right after the $600 boost expired. She and her wife had started a family travel site that they had eventually intended to take full-time, until the pandemic hit. Without the extra $600, she now has to cover her family’s expenses with just a third of the income she used to have.
“I was fortunate enough to have enough savings to sustain us for a while. But my concern was, what do we do with insurance? If we get sick, there's no way we can afford it. I work in HR, I know how much insurance is,” she says. So she and her family opted to relocate to Mexico for now, where they can get by on their reduced income and also feel safer from the virus than in the U.S. “We were able to get travel insurance for about $750, and it'll cover any emergency medical needs up to $100,000,” she says.
The inaction on extending the unemployment program is discouraging for Corritta. “I did everything they say you're supposed to do — [joined] the military, work, and school and all those things,” she says. For her, getting the $600 weekly boost would have amounted to just a livable amount for her and her family, not some great excess. “I think the conversation that everyone’s trying to avoid is the extremely low wages people are paid,” she says. “Of course people want to work, but what can you do when you have a specific skill set? I've worked in HR for the last ten years. So how can you find work when there are so many millions of people who are looking for one — and there’s only one job?”
Ivan, 45, is a service dog trainer who lost his job in March. He remembers when he first saw COVID-19 on the news. “I already knew at that point, this job is over for me,” he says. And though the income loss was hard, he says it was an odd relief too — because the extra unemployment insurance meant that he could stay safe at home and still pay his bills for a while, instead of continuing to work for a soul-crushing employer. “I would travel for three weeks a month, and then I would be home for a week at most,” he says. Sometimes he would work 80-hour weeks and get paid as if he’d only worked 40, never receiving overtime. “I fell asleep at the wheel a couple of times,” he admits.
The $600 allowed him to move on from an unethical employer who took advantage of employees and clients alike, according to Ivan. “It was just a really bad situation, but I worked towards being the best trainer I could be under those circumstances. They were the worst of the worst of all the shitty companies,” he says.
He’s launched two online businesses since getting laid off, including his own dog training company. “A lot of people say that people are lazy on unemployment. I’m so motivated,” he says. “I don't ever want to work for someone. Every time I work for a boss, it gets worse and worse and worse each time.” Eventually, he envisions relying on only his own business, rather than being someone’s employee. “It's the only way I could offer transparency. And it's the only way I can move forward with integrity.”
“That extra money really, really helped me. I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but I made more money on unemployment with the $600 than before,” he says. “Obviously I wasn't rich, I wasn’t comfortable [on my previous income.] That’s partly why I’m working so hard and doing my own thing right now. I'm not looking to buy a yacht. There's gotta be something between having a yacht and just keeping the lights on.”
Emily, 24, started living in a van full-time after she lost her job as a cruise ship shopping guide. With the $600 supplement gone, she’s getting $107 a week from Louisiana’s state unemployment program. “If you’re in a situation where you're unemployed and have to pay rent and groceries and insurance and internet and a phone bill and gas and a car so that you can even try to find a job — I mean, it’s physically impossible,” she says. On top of being laid off, she still hasn’t been paid in full for the work she’s done, which she says could help her survive for two or three months.
The biggest burden was rent, difficult even with the extra unemployment but certainly out of reach on just $107/week. So Emily and her best friend used their $1,200 stimulus checks toward buying a 1985 Dodge Ram van and converting it into a home. “We just took off to the national parks all summer,” she says. They made it all the way to the Pacific, seeing firsthand how states were closing and reopening and then closing again. And while being in the nation’s great outdoors has been freeing and fun, Emily is cognizant of the fact that the catalyst for this road trip was a glaring failure in COVID-19 relief. “We haven't gotten rid of the van and we don’t know how long we’re going to need to keep it, because at this point it just does not make sense to be paying rent,” she says. “Especially with no jobs — with us being cruise ship workers, we're going to be some of the last ones to go back to work. The only real expenses we have are our cell phones, the gas, and laundry and groceries here and there.”
“A lot of the people we met while we were on this trip had the same exact story as us,” says Emily. But while some of them may put their vans into storage or sell them as the weather turns cold, she’s going to stick with it for as long as it’s necessary. “I plan on spending Christmas on a beach in Key West with a Bloody Mary in my hand,” she declares. She and her friend have been documenting their rent-free life on their instagram account, @vandemicusa.
She doesn’t really expect the $600 unemployment boost to be renewed. “If it happens, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But at this point I’m not getting my hopes up,” she says. “Congress has not done anything useful for me in a while. It’s a sports team, Democrats versus Republicans. And I don't think they really care about the little people who are being involved.”
There are countless stories like these of Americans fighting to keep their heads above water, especially now that the extra unemployment program has ended. Its expiration has been difficult not only because it’s meant a big income reduction for those relying on it, but because it happened so suddenly — a rug pulled out from under them, with no certainty on when or if it will come back.
Data For Progress, a non-profit that conducts polling and analysis on progressive political causes such as the Green New Deal and criminal justice reform, has been surveying thousands of likely voters on how the $600 unemployment boost changed their lives. The project, spearheaded by Data For Progress co-founder Colin McAuliffe and analyst Ethan Winter, collects responses as freeform answers rather than multiple-choice selections. That’s made it harder to process the data — Winter has read through each of the thousands of submissions to categorize them — but doing it this way captures the specificity of each hardship that gets lost when we only focus on the big picture.
“We decided the most powerful way to present these people’s stories was just in their own words,” says Winter. So they created a bot that posts survey responses to a Twitter account called @ExtendCaresUI, where over 500 have been tweeted so far. “The hope of the bot was to highlight the real precarity with which people live,” Winter says. “The project is not about me and how it makes me feel. But I would be lying if I didn't say that after reading and processing thousands of these responses, it's taken an emotional toll on me. It makes me feel small and rather helpless.”
Despite what some politicians would have you believe, $600/week wasn’t a number pulled out of thin air. Winter explains that the median wage in the U.S. is about $19/hr. “So the design of the CARES Act provision was to have it so that with the $600/week, plus state benefits, which tend to replace between 30% to 40% [of wages], the average worker would see 100% of their lost income replaced," he says. By itself, the federal supplement paid people who’d lost their jobs as if they’d worked a 40-hour week at $15/hr — what many economists and labor advocates have been saying the federal minimum wage should have been raised to years ago.
And while Republican lawmakers have opposed more generous unemployment, they’re not backed by popular opinion. Polling conducted by Data For Progress shows that the majority of U.S. voters support extending the extra unemployment provision. The survey also asked voters about raising wages for essential workers. “A lot of conservative critics of this program said, ‘Oh, it's not fair that essential workers aren't getting paid as much as those who are at home.’ And I would agree with them,” says Winter. So do most voters, with 53% saying that essential workers should make as much as those who had received the extra $600.
“The CARES Act is this really unique piece of legislation, because [the country] recognized that there was this monumental need,” says Winter. “And instead of making people jump through all these complicated hoops and half-equivalent benefits, we basically just gave them money.” Benefits like food stamps come with a lot of restrictions on what you can buy and where you can buy it, in contrast to the no-strings-attached $600 that the CARES Act deposited into people’s bank accounts. “In America, this is kind of a revolutionary idea,” Winter says. Some have even called the CARES Act’s direct stimulus payments and unemployment benefits a “trial run” for universal basic income.
“We’re the wealthiest country in the world. What is the point of all the wealth that we’ve created, if we can’t make sure people have enough food to eat?” he asks. “I would love to find a way to show people how much of a difference giving people a little bit more can make. What does economic dignity look like? And it’s nothing crazy. It just means having enough food, maybe being able to afford going back to school.”
“For this brief moment, we experimented with a really transformational kind of policy,” says Winter. “And I hope we bring it back.”