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With Relief Programs Expiring Soon, Millions Of Americans Expect A Difficult Winter

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's take stock of where we stand on this first day of the very last month of what, for many of us, has been a godawful year. The pandemic rages on. More than 150,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus yesterday. States and cities are closing businesses. Nearly 800,000 people are applying for unemployment every week.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And despite all of that, Congress still hasn't passed an economic relief package since April. And a bunch of important relief measures helping millions of Americans are set to expire at the end of this month. Today, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a nearly trillion-dollar compromise bill that would revive the Paycheck Protection Program and supplemental unemployment payments. Here's Republican Senator Susan Collins.

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SUSAN COLLINS: We recognize that families all across America are struggling, that businesses are closing, that hospitals are overwhelmed. As we deal with this second wave or third wave of this pandemic, it is absolutely essential that we pass emergency relief.

SHAPIRO: But the proposal doesn't have the support it needs from party leaders or the White House. After today's announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, seemed to reject it, saying, quote, "we just don't have time to waste time."

KELLY: While meanwhile, an economic cliff is fast approaching for millions of Americans. Take Anneliese Monkman. She used to work at a hotel in Bangor, Maine - Collins' state - but she lost her job last spring. Her fiance was laid off from his restaurant job a few weeks later. Monkman has applied for hundreds of jobs, but she hasn't found new work yet.

SHAPIRO: For a time, they were getting by, helped by the original CARES Act, which paid $600 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits. But those ran out in July, and Monkman is now scraping by on federal pandemic benefits of just $355 a week.

ANNELIESE MONKMAN: It's been a struggle deciding of what bills to pay and what bills will get pushed. We try to keep things like car insurance, gas and phone and Internet because those things keep us allowing us to look for jobs.

SHAPIRO: Without action from Congress, even that reduced unemployment payout is set to end later this month.

MONKMAN: You're looking at families who are trying to teach their kids from home and feed them on very little money and then are not going to have things like heat. And here, that could be, you know, life-threatening.

KELLY: Also expiring this month - government measures designed to help people put off foreclosure, a CDC measurement to protect renters, an executive order allowing student loan borrowers to put off payments. Bottom line - that economic cliff is big, and it is looming fast. I want to bring in NPR correspondents Chris Arnold and Scott Horsley, who are reporting on the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Hey there, you two.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hey.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's start with the big picture. And Scott, I'm starting big because it feels really big. There are a lot of people affected by all this.

HORSLEY: There are. According to the Labor Department, more than 13 million people have been relying on emergency unemployment aid that is set to run out the day after Christmas. Now, that number may be a little bit inflated. Watchdog groups say that unemployment offices have been overwhelmed and the numbers are not as reliable as a lot of statistics. But even if 13 million's high, we know there are millions of people who are about to have a lifeline taken away from them.

Laura Bleau of Newtown, Conn., lost her job as a graphic designer for a cosmetics company. She's already exhausted her usual six months of state unemployment and shifted over to the emergency federal program. That's set to run out in just about four weeks.

LAURA BLEAU: It's going to get more difficult to stay ahead of all my bills. My husband's salary can cover the mortgage and the utilities, but pretty much anything extra is my income. And just the loss of income over these last eight months - it's a bit stressful.

HORSLEY: When the Bleaus were getting the extra $600 a week during the summer, they were doing OK, but their budget's a lot leaner now.

KELLY: Chris Arnold, let me bring you in. Speaking of bills coming due, you have been keeping an eye on the many people who are having trouble paying the rent, who are maybe facing eviction. What's the most important thing that's happening there?

ARNOLD: Well, there's a few things. And one - and one of the biggest - is these unemployment benefits that Scott was just talking about because so many people have absolutely exhausted their savings. They have nothing left. And if these benefits expire, many, many more people are going to be headed towards eviction.

And that said, at the moment, there is a federal eviction order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people call it the CDC eviction ban, but it really is not an eviction ban. That is set to expire. Housing groups are calling on the CDC to extend that. We'll see.

But that is also problematic. I mean, there are thousands of people being evicted even with that order because it's not, like, a blanket moratorium that some states have put into effect where it's like nobody can be evicted. This is different. Renters have to know about it. They have to go to the CDC website, often, print it out, give it to their landlord. And a lot of people don't even show up in court for eviction hearings. So it's problematic, but it is protecting a lot of other people who do manage to take advantage of it.

I did a story where I talked to Jeremy and Alice Bumpus, and they've been facing eviction in Houston after losing their jobs.

JEREMY BUMPUS: We got 13-, 12- and a 10-year-old in the house. My mom is 68.

ALICE BUMPUS: And that's what we worry about the most - you know, how much more we're going to be at risk when we have to move up out of our home. My mother-in-law is very sickly.

ARNOLD: They - the couple got a legal aid lawyer, said they're using the CDC order. That's keeping them - at least until it expires, keeping them in the house. I talked to Christina Rosales, though. She's a - with a prominent nonprofit named Texas Housers. And she says, look; the courts in Texas and other states - that they're holding eviction hearings over Zoom calls and just chugging along, continuing to evict people during the pandemic.

CHRISTINA ROSALES: It's lunacy. It is absolute lunacy to see the pandemic numbers in Texas just rising - the infection rates, the death rates, the hospitalizations. Judges are continuing to hold hearings, and people are very scared about losing their home, being thrown out into the streets. So what Congress needs to do is to act now.

ARNOLD: All kinds of housing groups and some mainstream economists, too, we should say, are calling for a couple of things. One is a real nationwide eviction moratorium that is just a blanket thing that works for everybody and money for landlords, importantly, too, so that the rent gets paid, the back rent gets paid and the landlords don't go under either.

KELLY: So many people facing so many struggles. Scott Horsley, is help on the way? That compromise bill we mentioned that lawmakers are cooking up - what are its prospects?

HORSLEY: You know, it's hard to say. It was designed to bridge this big gulf between House Democrats who wanted a really big aid package and the Senate Republicans who've been pushing for a much narrower relief bill. But it's not clear whether it's going to get any traction. And that's really frustrating for April Kinsinger, who lives near Dayton, Ohio. She's been scraping by on $189 a week and is about to lose even that lifeline.

APRIL KINSINGER: I think normal people sitting here watching the television screen are pretty sick and tired of seeing both sides fighting over kind of arbitrary things when we're unable to make our car payments, when we're unable to put food on the table. It seems a lot like they're fighting over political stuff when we just need to be able to feed our kids.

KELLY: What are the macro effects of this on the economy? We're talking millions of people facing the prospect of having the rug just yanked out from under them.

HORSLEY: Yeah, less money for people to spend. That hurts businesses. It hurts the people they employ. The Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, told a Senate committee today the economic outlook right now is really uncertain. Spring and summer could be really positive if we're able to get a handle on this pandemic. But the cold winter months between now and then could be really tough for a lot of small businesses and families.

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JEROME POWELL: They may see what may be the light at the end of the tunnel in the middle of next year as the vaccines come out and are widely distributed. But they may need more help to get to that place.

HORSLEY: And Powell repeated his warning to lawmakers that it's better to do too much to help the economy in this situation than too little.

KELLY: That is Scott Horsley and Chris Arnold of NPR's economics team.

Thanks to you both for that snapshot of where we are on December 1, 2020.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Mary Louise.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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