‘We Struggle’: Unemployed Americans Face Bleak Christmas

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Last Christmas, Shanita Matthews cooked a feast for her family of three: roast chicken, barbecue ribs, spinach, macaroni and cheese.

This year? They’ll be left with tuna and crackers, among the few items she can afford at the supermarket.

“We’re not really doing Christmas – I guess you can put it that way,” said Matthews, who lives in Suwanee, Georgia. “We struggle. We are tired and I have only my faith. “

Like nearly 10 million other Americans, Matthews has been out of work since the viral pandemic devastated the U.S. economy in March, triggering a devastating recession and widespread unemployment. Today, several months later, they face a holiday season they could hardly have foreseen a year ago: too little money to buy gifts, cook a big holiday meal, or pay for all of it. their bills.

Almost 8 million people have slipped into poverty since June after spending $ 1,200 on checks the government gave most Americans in the spring and an extra $ 600 a week unemployment benefit expired in July, according to a research of Bruce Meyer at the University of Chicago and two other colleagues. And finding a job is getting even more difficult: November hiring slowed for a fifth straight month, with U.S. employers adding the fewest jobs since April.

Relief may – potentially – be on the way. This week, Congress approved a $ 900 billion pandemic rescue package that includes an unemployment benefit of $ 300 per week, cash payments of up to $ 600 for most individuals, and program renewal. extended unemployment assistance programs that are about to expire. On Tuesday evening, however, President Donald Trump cast doubt on urgent federal aid by deeming the bailout inadequate and suggesting he might not sign it into law.

Help, meanwhile, cannot come soon enough for Matthews. With her bank balance now negative, she fears her account will be closed if she does not receive financial assistance soon.

Matthews, 41, has struggled with her finances since she had to shut down her wedding business in March when ceremonies were called off and all need for centerpieces and flower arrangements she made s suddenly evaporated. Matthews was denied unemployment assistance by the Georgia Department of Labor. She does not understand why and appeals the decision. But the process is so slow that she waited months just to get a hearing.

Despite being a registered nurse, Matthews has not been able to land a job. She can only work late, as she often needs to help her 6-year-old daughter, who has to do a virtual apprenticeship at home when virus cases increase in her school.

Matthews’ car was repossessed after she couldn’t keep up with the payments. Most of what her husband earns goes to a $ 1,600 mortgage on their house. That leaves them about $ 200 a month for groceries, utilities, and a $ 50 internet bill – a necessity for her daughter’s schoolwork.

Matthews hopes a parent can step in and buy a Christmas present for their daughter.

“We want to be able to have food, water, heat,” she said. “These are the things that interest us.”

Charities say they have been inundated with requests for help, a sign that many are in serious financial distress. The United Way expects the number of calls to the 211 hotline it funds to double from last year to 20 million calls, mostly from people needing help paying for the service. rent or utility bills. Feeding America says many people are showing up tofood banksare beginners.

In desperation, Sheyontay Molton turned to Twitter to get help after a series of events, she runs out of money to buy gifts for her four children.

The father of her children lost his job this year. Molton, who is 28 and lives in San Antonio, Texas, had to temporarily stop working as a delivery driver for DoorDash after falling debris from a truck severely damaged his car in October. She used part of her rent to fix it, leaving it on the bills.

Noticing on Twitter that social media influencers and celebrities were providing money to certain people in need, Molton set up an account and tweeted about his situation. Someone sent her $ 200 through an app – money she plans to use for groceries. Another couple on Twitter asked him to create a Amazon Wish List and then bought her children a doll, cars and other toys for Christmas.

Without the donations, Molton had planned to tell his young children that Santa Claus couldn’t come because he was taking extra precautions against the coronavirus.

“It’s silly, I know,” she said, but “that would have saved me more time.”

The struggles of low-income workers and the unemployed are contributing to a weak holiday shopping season that will likely weigh on the economy as a whole. Retail salesfell1.1% in November, a generally strong month when the purchase of gifts starts. Some economists expect retail sales to decline again this month, especially as governments impose more trade restrictions and rising coronavirus cases are pushing consumers away from stores and restaurants.

Summer Kluytman envisions a budget vacation. She had to tell her two teenage sons not to expect the kind of Christmas presents they have typically received in the past, like the $ 400 Oculus VR headset that sat under the tree year round. last.

Having lost two jobs as an art teacher, Kluytman had to buy food stamps to help pay for groceries. Her husband’s salary, who works for a cable company, goes towards renting their house in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kluytman spends $ 100 for each son this Christmas on hoodies and other clothing, down from the $ 500 she spent each year. She plans to organize movie nights, where they will gather in the living room to watch a movie.

“I think they’re cool spending time together rather than hanging out a bunch of stuff under the tree,” she says. “But that breaks my heart a bit.”

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