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One-Third of Americans Can’t Pay Their Bills as Stimulus Talks Stall

An estimated 9 million eligible people have not received their first stimulus check.

People receive food outside of a Brooklyn mosque and cultural center on September 18, 2020, in New York City.

Part of the Series

Emily Brockman is a recently unemployed mother, but that didn’t stop her landlord from attempting to kick Brockman and her 5-month-old child out of their home in Lexington, Kentucky. Like millions of people across the United States, Brockman is struggling to pay rent and bills as talks over pandemic relief stall on Capitol Hill and stimulus checks fail to reach society’s most vulnerable. Despite a “moratorium” on evictions put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month, Brockman was recently in court fighting for a place to live.

“[The judge] just looked at my landlord and said, ‘What would you like to do?’” Brockman said in a statement on Tuesday. “Of course, they said they would like to move forward with the eviction, and he said ‘OK.’ Everything happened so fast. I was shocked. I had assumed I was going to be safe under the CDC guidelines because I matched perfectly.”

Advocates say flaws in the CDC’s eviction order is just one of many massive holes in the federal safety net for people suffering under the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with lawmakers still debating a stimulus relief package, policies put in place by the Trump administration are only making the suffering worse. Millions of low-income and incarcerated people have yet to receive the $1,200 stimulus payment Congress approved in the spring, and millions more remain out of work as federal unemployment benefits run dry. Nationally, about one in three adults — nearly 78 million people — are struggling to pay expenses such as rent, mortgage payments, medical bills and student loans.

A local housing rights group helped Brockman beat her case, but others are not so lucky. The eviction moratorium has proved difficult to enforce in local courts and puts onerous requirements on tenants at risk of losing their housing. On Tuesday, a coalition of housing rights groups declared the eviction moratorium a “deeply flawed and insufficient attempt to address the housing crisis” and a “cynical move” to bolster President Trump’s chance at reelection.

“This CDC eviction moratorium has been a hot mess. It isn’t even a band aid,” said Y. Frank Southall, a housing rights organizer who works with renters in New Orleans, a city facing a crisis of evictions. “It’s a piece of nothing masquerading as a solution.”

With pain and hardship only growing ahead of the election, Trump came under heavy fire from both Republicans and Democrats this week after abruptly calling off negotiations over the pandemic stimulus relief package. Trump then flip-flopped on Thursday, telling Fox News Business that talks are once again underway, and floated the idea of issuing another round of $1,200 stimulus checks. While the first round of checks was included in a stimulus bill passed by Congress in the spring, Trump signed the legislation and sent out a letter with individual checks with his name on it.

However, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected the idea of providing another round of checks without broader unemployment relief and aid to school systems and struggling cities and states, according to reports. House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion pandemic relief package in May, but it was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. House Democrats passed a slimmer, $2.2 trillion package last week despite Republican opposition.

Meanwhile, people are going hungry across the country, including millions of families and children. In September, between 7 and 11 million households reported that their children did not get enough to eat in the last seven days, according to the Census estimates. More than 40 percent of children live in a household that doesn’t have enough to eat or is behind on rent. Black and Latinx renters are twice as likely to report having trouble paying rent than white renters.

Rates of financial hardship are even higher among families of color, according to estimates based on Census data. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women and people of color and exacerbated longstanding inequities in housing, health care and education. Nearly one in two Black households report trouble paying basic expenses, along with 45 percent of Latinx households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nearly 27 million workers are either receiving or have applied for unemployment benefits, including the 1.3 million who filed for either state or federal pandemic benefits just last week, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Senate Republicans let a weekly $600 unemployment benefit for workers impacted by the pandemic expire in July, and funding for a $300 weekly benefit provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under Trump’s direction is already exhausted in states across the country. FEMA will be unable to provide more emergency unemployment funding unless Congress agrees on a stimulus.

While Trump and Republicans float the idea of another stimulus check, an estimated 9 million eligible people have not received their first check, according to the Government Accountability Office. Many low-income people who are not required to file taxes regularly are already vulnerable to falling through the safety net, including veterans, the elderly, people who do not speak English, incarcerated people and houseless people. (People who do not file taxes must register with the IRS in order to receive stimulus money.)

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress on Wednesday that his agency is engaged in “outreach efforts,” but the IRS has already attempted to block payments to people in prisons, who are paid substandard wages if they have any means of income at all. After issuing 85,000 stimulus payments to incarcerated people totaling $100 million this summer, the IRS reversed course and declared incarcerated people ineligible. The Trump administration told prison wardens to intercept checks and demanded that recipients and their families send them back. Prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit, and last month a federal judge ruled that incarcerated people are eligible for payments and ordered the IRS to consider those who were denied by October 24.

On Tuesday, the court ordered the IRS to extend the deadline for applying for payments by mail until October 30 in order to accommodate low-income and incarcerated people, and to correct misinformation targeted at prisoners and their families on the agency’s website. Advocates say prisoners and their families are in desperate need of economic relief, but the Trump administration filed a “protective appeal” this week in case the IRS and Treasury Department decide to challenge the order. The deadline for filing for stimulus online has been pushed to November 21.

However, many prisoners to not have consistent access to the internet, and there are concerns that sheriffs and prison wardens are not making tax forms available behind bars. While advocates say some state prison systems are working to make IRS forms available, they are concerned that people locked up in local jails — who represent roughly a quarter of the 2.3 million people caged nationwide — will not have access to the forms or website and miss the deadline. (If you or a loved one is incarcerated and would like to apply for the stimulus payment, there are resources available here and here.)

Across the country, activists are pressuring prison officials to make sure that incarcerated people can file taxes or register for stimulus payments with the IRS. Bruce Reilly, the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, a group of formerly incarcerated activists in Louisiana, said Louisiana state prison officials have said they would hand out IRS forms. However, his organization has not received any word about the availability of IRS forms in jails, where over half of those incarcerated in Louisiana are currently caged. The state prison systems in Louisiana and Pennsylvania did not respond to inquiries from Truthout.

“[I] heard of one woman filling out the form (indicating no income) on the prison yard,” Reilly said. “Lots of that money likely gets pinched by the captors if it ever gets sent at all.”

Unless Congress and Trump can come to an agreement over more federal aid, millions of people will continue to falling through gaping holes in the pandemic safety net as voters head to the polls on November 3.

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