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COVID & Unemployment

Extra $300 in federal jobless benefits is making a difference, but is it enough?

Samantha Fields Jan 25, 2021
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Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
COVID & Unemployment

Extra $300 in federal jobless benefits is making a difference, but is it enough?

Samantha Fields Jan 25, 2021
Heard on:
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

After months of getting by just on state benefits, some of the nearly 16 million people who are receiving unemployment benefits have started getting an extra $300 a week from the federal government. 

Congress and former President Donald Trump approved the additional money — which is half of what people were getting in the spring and early summer — just before the end of the year, as part of the last COVID-19 relief package.

“It’s not as good as the $600, obviously, but it’s better than nothing,” said Lois Prew, 50, who has been on unemployment since March, when she was laid off from her part-time job as a dishwasher at an inn.

Since the first round of supplemental federal unemployment benefits expired over the summer, Prew has been surviving on just $267 a week in state unemployment benefits.

“When I was only getting the state benefits, we really couldn’t pay the bills at all,” Prew said. “Now, with the $300, I can afford to pay bills, but I have to decide which bills am I going to pay, which are gonna wait.”

When her first unemployment check with the extra $300 in it arrived in early January, she sent most of it straight to the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she lives, to catch up on her property taxes. Same with the second one. Next, she is planning to focus on paying down her water and sewer bills, which are also overdue.

“I’m anxious because I have to decide which bills to pay, and when, and how much,” Prew said. “At the same time, though, I’m grateful that the $300 is there.”

The extra $300 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, more than doubles Prew’s weekly unemployment checks. That’s true for many people around the country. In more than a dozen states, the average weekly unemployment benefit is right around the federal poverty line for a one-person household — about $245 a week, or just under $13,000 a year

“What we know is that the $300 plus the basic benefit is in a position to keep millions of people out of poverty,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “It will mean that unemployment is not a poverty-level benefit … that most people are going to be able to not be facing a crisis, being able to meet most of their minimum needs.”

Many people have not been able to cover their most basic expenses since the $600 a week in supplemental federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July. Since the summer, more than 8 million people have fallen into poverty, according to research out of the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame

“The $600 payments were literally keeping people from starving,” said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University. 

That boost in unemployment benefits was especially critical for people of color, who have been more likely to lose jobs or income during the pandemic. It also helped the economy.  

“The $600 payments … were one of the things that caused a bit of an uptick in economic activity in the third quarter of 2020,” Logan said. “Will $300 payments help? Certainly it’s better than nothing. But it’s not necessarily as good as $600.”

That is how Courtney Henley feels. 

Before the pandemic, she worked as an event planner in Brooklyn, New York. The amount of money she gets in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance alone, “let’s just say it’s not livable,” Henley said. 

When she was getting the additional $600 a week last spring and summer, Henley was able to cover all her expenses and even save a little money. But after that expired, she started to fall behind on her bills. 

“I didn’t have enough to stay on top of everything,” she said. 

Since the beginning of the year, Henley has received two unemployment checks with the extra $300, and she’s been using the money to start to catch up. 

But, “$300 extra in New York is not enough, because we are such a high-cost-of-living state,” she said. “It’s all going to basic expenses. It goes to bills, food, cat food, that’s about it.”

There’s no going out for pizza. No savings. Nothing left over.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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