There are two COVID Americas. One hopes for an extension of federal unemployment and stimulus. The other is saving and spending.
It’s been a rough few months for Chelsie Caudle.
The mother of two has run into delays applying for unemployment and food stamps in Portland, Oregon, after Grace Salon, a hair salon that specializes in cutting and coloring, was forced to shutter in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Caudle, who is self-employed, sublet a spot at Grace Salon to run her own business called Benjamin LLC. But with no income coming in for months, bills piled up, making it hard for her to afford groceries for her family, she says.
“I’m panicked. I’ve run through my entire savings,” says Caudle, who returned to work a few weeks ago. But she has put in fewer hours with less clients due to social-distancing measures.
“If the state shuts down the salon again, I don’t know what I’ll do,” says Caudle, 35.
Across the country, Sarah Walker, 31, was more fortunate. She and her husband, who live in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, have cut down on their daycare and driving expenses during the pandemic since they’re both working from home, saving her family nearly $2,000 a month. That’s helped them stash more money away in their retirement accounts.
“As soon as our expenses were cut, I immediately started saving more,” says Walker, who’s a senior credit and collections specialist at a cement manufacturer. Her husband works with children in youth services.
The coronavirus recession has split America in two: those who are still financially intact, and others facing lasting scars.
Congress is set to reconvene this week at a critical juncture following a two-week recess as the $600 weekly unemployment benefits under the CARES Act are set to expire at the end of the month. Policymakers will debate whether more emergency stimulus checks and extra unemployment payments are needed to keep jobless people afloat as workers and businesses continue to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
More than two-thirds of Americans say they still need a second stimulus check from the government to help make ends meet, according to recent data from tax preparer Jackson Hewitt. And about a third of that group said the $1,200 checks needed to be more than the previous round. Only about a quarter of them say they wouldn’t need another emergency payment.
“Another round of stimulus is badly needed,” says Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist of Oxford Economics. The expiring of enhanced unemployment benefits could represent a “severe shock” to people’s income since another potential round of stimulus checks likely won’t be as large as they previously were, he added.
More states have paused or rolled back their reopening plans following a resurgence in coronavirus cases, which could cause more people to lose their jobs, experts say. A staggering 51.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment over the past 17 weeks during the pandemic.
“If we do get a big pullback in income in August, that will directly affect people’s ability to spend, which creates a risk for the economic rebound,” Daco says.
In April, Caudle received a $2,200 stimulus check, which temporarily helped tide her over to cover her rent, car loan and auto insurance, she says.
“I have terrible anxiety because of the unknown,” Caudle says. “Another stimulus check would be a huge help.”
A quarter of Americans are using the stimulus money to cover major bills including their rent or mortgage, student or car loans and hospital bills. And 20% are using the money to pay for essentials like groceries or medical supplies, the Jackson Hewitt data showed.
“This should give us all pause for concern because some Americans are still in dire need of more money,” says Mark Steber, chief tax information officer at Jackson Hewitt. “People are in real pain.”
Some Americans remain unscathed
There are workers who have been more insulated from the recession and have used the pandemic as a time to build their nest egg. Nearly a third of Americans have put their stimulus money into a savings or retirement account, Jackson Hewitt data showed.
Walker, for instance, upped her 401(k) contributions and maxed out her Roth IRA.
“We’re young. I want to save as much as I can now when the market is down and stock prices are cheaper,” says Walker.
She and her husband received a $3,400 stimulus check and used part of it to pay off credit card debt, and used the remaining portion to invest.
“It’s conflicting. In one way I want the world to go back to normal because we miss our friends and our fun activities,” Walker says. “But it’s also nice to save more money and see those retirement balances shooting up.”
Some Americans are still sticking with their long-term investment strategy and are contributing more to their retirement accounts. According to Voya Financial’s retirement plan participant data, of those who changed their savings rate with the investment management company, 64% increased plan contributions in the second quarter.
The couple also has been giving back to those less fortunate during the pandemic. About 3% of people donated their stimulus checks to those in need, according to Jackson Hewitt.
Low-wage workers bear the brunt
Job losses among low-wage workers represented 56% of the total employment decline during the coronavirus recession, with the unemployment rate rising as high as 50% in the most exposed industries like leisure, hospitality and retail, according to Oxford Economics.
While the employment rebound has been stronger for the lowest earners, their level of employment remained 16% lower in June than in February, a shortfall about 2.5 times greater than for the mid- and high-wage groups.
White-collar workers who had been relatively less affected at the onset of the pandemic appear more exposed now to permanent layoffs, Daco says.
“With nearly seven million low-income workers still unemployed and many lacking the financial buffer to weather a long jobless spell, a failure to provide additional fiscal support would put the nascent recovery at risk,” Daco says. “The recent flare-up in COVID-19 infections nationwide, with some states rolling back their reopening, also risks another wave of layoffs at the bottom.”
Middle-class households face hurdles, too
The pandemic has revealed how much middle-income households are financially vulnerable, according to Peter Schneider, president at Primerica, a financial services provider.
“It’s understandable that people have anxiety about the future,” says Peter Schneider, president at Primerica. “There’s much concern about future employment and bills being paid.”
About 51% of the middle-income families who have been financially affected by the pandemic are concerned about running out of money to pay for basic necessities by the end of the year, according to a recent survey from Primerica. The survey gauged the financial outlook and preparedness of those with annual household incomes between $30,000 to $100,000.
About 86% of middle-income households that said they have been financially impacted by the pandemic in at least some way. And respondents expressed concern about their ability to weather a medium or long-term economic downturn. Just over a third of respondents believe their personal finances will recover from the effects of the recession in the next year.
Of the more than two-thirds of respondents who received a stimulus payment, the most common uses included paying bills (49%), buying groceries (36%) and adding to savings (25%), the Primerica study showed.
About 61% of middle-income Americans have had to cut spending in the wake of the pandemic.
“We are encouraged that middle-income families are making adjustments to their budgets by reducing their spending on non-necessities,” Schneider says. “That’s an important step toward getting on better financial footing.”
Will there be a second round of stimulus?
The White House signaled its support for additional cash payments as part of the next recovery package. The House passed a Democratic bill calling for a second round of direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for joint filers. Senate Republicans also appear to be on board with an additional round of stimulus payments, although they want to limit who would qualify.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested distributing the money to people who earn $40,000 or less per year, arguing they would benefit the most from another round of stimulus payments. But House Democrats in their bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, are calling for the next round of $1,200 stimulus payments to go to Americans earning less than $75,000 a year.
When it comes to enhanced unemployment, Republicans argue that the $600 boost was too high and a disincentive for Americans to go back to work. Democrats have said the program should be renewed and pointed to the still-high unemployment rate, currently 11.1%.
Republicans have floated a variety of options that include reforming the enhanced benefits or even replacing them with a back-to-work bonus, but they are not keen to continue the $600 program.
Some experts argue that the government shouldn’t continue to add to the growing U.S. budget deficit since improving retail sales and the labor market data point to an economic rebound.
The U.S. budget deficit reached $3 trillion in the 12 months through June as stimulus spending jumped to combat the effects of the pandemic, with the federal government headed for its largest annual deficit as a share of the economy since World War II.
“If we do need more stimulus, let’s give it more time and reconsider,” says Dr. Michael Busler, a public policy analyst and a professor of finance at Stockton University in New Jersey. “We could be going through a second wave of the pandemic, which could slow the economic rebound. But if the recovery is strong enough, it could withstand it.”