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Unemployed Americans Struggle To Survive Without Federal Help

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Tens of millions of people were getting extra unemployment benefits from the federal government. Then, two months ago, Congress let those benefits lapse. And without that $600 a week, many people now don't have enough money to live on. What's more, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports, their situation could make the recession worse for everyone.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: When the pandemic hit, Jesus Gonzalez was about a year into starting a Cuban food business in Lexington, Ky.

JESUS GONZALEZ: I was running my own catering and, like, food pop-up business, so like a food truck but without a truck.

ARNOLD: He'd set up tables full of Cuban food at local breweries so people could eat while quaffing pints. But then all that shut down, and he says things aren't back to normal enough yet for the breweries to bring him back. He's a single dad with a 13-year-old daughter, and he says that extra federal unemployment money really helped.

GONZALEZ: That was everything. That made it so that I could focus on my daughter. That 600 a week made it so that I could, like, keep my head above water. Like, my car broke down, and that made it possible to fix it, and I was paying my rent.

ARNOLD: But that extra money stopped coming at the end of July. Gonzalez managed to save some of it, but now that's run out. He's only getting $150 a week in state benefits, and he couldn't afford to pay his rent this month. Gonzalez has been asking friends for money on Facebook. He says many actually have been helping, but he's not sure how long he can do that. And he says his family doesn't like that much.

GONZALEZ: Since I started reaching out on Facebook, some of them have even told me that I'm begging for money from people and, like, been mean to me about it, you know?

ARNOLD: So far, Gonzalez's landlord has been more understanding and is being flexible about him catching up on the rent. And, like Gonzalez, more Americans are now having trouble paying their rent. The chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, this week said that without more stimulus, more and more Americans may start running out of money and options, and that...

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JEROME POWELL: That will start to show up in economic activity. It'll also show up in things like evictions and foreclosures and, you know, things that will scar and damage the economy. So that's a downside risk.

ARNOLD: Joseph Vavra is an economics professor at the University of Chicago who's been studying this pandemic-sparked recession. He says economists don't have a crystal ball. It's hard to know exactly how much stimulus the economy needs, but...

JOSEPH VAVRA: There is huge risk that if you don't get something together and provide some additional stimulus, that the economy could fall off a cliff.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, if food banks are any indication, a lot of people need more help. The system of food pantries for the state of Florida says they're serving upwards of 1 million more people than normal, and they haven't seen any drop-off in demand. Florida's state unemployment benefits are among the lowest in the country. Paco Velez is the president of Feeding South Florida.

PACO VELEZ: I talked to the families, and now that they're only receiving the Florida unemployment benefit, it's really not enough to make ends meet. It's not enough to keep a roof over their heads or put food on the table for their families. There's just a sense of desperation and fear in a lot of these families.

ARNOLD: From where he sits, Jesus Gonzalez in Kentucky just doesn't understand why Congress hasn't approved more help yet.

GONZALEZ: I wasn't surprised that the government wasn't there for us when we needed it. But what the difference was, is that it's so big and it affects so many people that it's to a point where when people can't spend money, it's affecting the economy. And so I was really surprised that they didn't act because of that.

ARNOLD: But basically, Republicans want to spend less money on pandemic-related stimulus, Democrats want to spend more, and they remain deadlocked. The White House implemented a stopgap measure to give people $300 a week in federal unemployment money, but about 20 states haven't managed to distribute any of that. And at best, people received just six weeks of that extra money. So, along with tens of millions of other Americans on unemployment, Gonzalez is hoping that Congress finds a way to compromise and approves more help soon. Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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