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Families on the brink fear what's next as pandemic benefits expire

"It’s going to be worse before it gets better. Anyone waiting for the economy to reopen, you can starve in that period,” one economist said.
Protest To Call For Eviction Protection During COVID-19 Pandemic In Pennsylvania
A family with a single mother who lost her job as a hair stylist due to the pandemic participates in a protest on Sept. 1 in Reading, Pa., to call for the extension of the eviction moratorium in Pennsylvania indefinitely.Ben Hasty / MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

The pandemic has pushed millions of Americans to the cliff’s edge, with the ground crumbling at year’s end without further stimulus action by Congress.

When federal emergency coronavirus relief protections expire, some as soon as the day after Christmas, 13 million Americans will lose their jobless benefits. Many more face eviction, or will find student debt has come due.

Nine months in to the pandemic, the latest jobs report showed the economy in November gained a paltry 245,000 jobs out of the 10 million yet to be recovered, underscoring the need for swift remedy.

It "confirms we remain in the midst of one of the worst economic and jobs crises in modern history,” President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement released Friday, noting that the "grim" snapshot of the economy comes “before the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in December as we head into a dark winter.”

When the CARES Act was signed, there was enough money flowing so that workers could stay home while still paying their bills. It was an unusual sight: Amid the mass layoffs, people were still paying their rent and credit card bills and were protected from losing their home. That’s exactly what the bill’s signers calculated for. They knew how much money it would take to keep the economy on life support.

But with the coronavirus dragging on for longer than anyone had imagined, the appetite for protection measures developed inconsistently across America, and full bipartisan support for further spending withered.

Lawmakers hit an impasse earlier this year when Democrats pushed for $2.2 trillion in aid, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought a smaller package of $550 billion.

“It’s another fiscal cliff when families have already gone over a fiscal cliff,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, told NBC News. “It really means we’re allowing the wounds triggered by Covid to fester and become scars.”

According to an analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, if the pandemic unemployment insurance benefits were reinstated and the virus was brought under control, over 5 million jobs could be created or saved.

Half of America is working from home and insulated from the sight of wraparound lines at the food banks and growing homeless tent encampments in some parts of the country like Austin, Chicago, and Charlotte, that might normally stir their concern.

“With the vaccine coming, it’s going to be worse before it gets better,” Swonk said. “Anyone waiting for the economy to reopen, you can starve in that period.”

There have been some signs of support for a new $908 billion stimulus package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday that there is "momentum" on Capitol Hill to reach a deal on coronavirus relief, further optimism that legislation could be approved before the end of the year.

"I am pleased that the tone of our conversation is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done," Pelosi told reporters Friday.

The deal would provide for additional unemployment payments through March, but would not include another round of stimulus checks.

Relief can’t come soon enough for millions of families.

Rachel Alvarez, 44, a single mother of three in Naples, Florida, was making $6,000 a month as a server. Laid off in March, her unemployment benefits — which expire on Dec. 26 — barely cover her rent. That leaves her scrambling daily in food lines to fill the fridge.

“We need that federal [supplemental unemployment benefit],” Alvarez told NBC News. “Here we are in the pandemic, highest numbers and death rates and no relief before the holidays? It’s crazy. It is not okay.”

Next month, if things don’t improve, Alvarez said she will have to seek restaurant work again, even though she hasn’t fully recovered from a recent bout of pneumonia and one of her sons has a lung condition.

"I’m worried I might be dead” from coronavirus, she said. "But I’d rather work and provide for my family and put myself at risk than not provide.”

Desperate families keep falling down the ladder, uncertain of what comes next, after the fumes they’ve been running on start to dissipate.

Kelly Ann Hotchkin from Hamilton, New Jersey, was out of work for 7 months and went back to work for a month and a half, only to be furloughed again. Her husband is out of work too. They have four kids from ages 2 to 13. She only gets $231 a week in unemployment.

“We've gone through every penny of our savings, my husband is going through the appeals process for unemployment now,” Hotchkin told NBC News in an online message. “I have zero ability to provide even one gift for our kids' Christmas this year and apparently the government’s gift to us is to completely screw us the day after Christmas.”

The nationwide public health eviction moratorium implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires on Dec. 31. However, there has already been a surge of people living in their cars and tents, said Vanessa Brito, 37, a Miami political consultant who has voluntarily been helping thousands of people navigate Florida’s glitchy unemployment filing system. The eviction freeze still requires tenants to attempt to make minimum payments to their full ability using what government benefits they have.

“Imagine what comes Dec. 26. People are already living in their cars,” Brito said. “They’re going to be out on the street.”

Desperation has set in for many families, she said.

“We’ll take $100 extra. We’ll take anything. So please, sign off on something."