A new round of stimulus checks may seem like a boost as covid-19 continues to cause widespread economic struggles — but these checks may be too little, too late for people who have faced significant financial hardship throughout the pandemic.
The checks have been hotly debated, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposing a move to increase the stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000 — a measure endorsed by President Trump and bipartisan members of Congress.
Either way, a one-time payment likely won’t be enough to put people comfortably back on their feet after months of economic hardship — though it will serve as a bit of much-needed relief for those who are struggling to make ends meet.
“Certainly, the $600 is really not an aid,” said Felicia Brock, pastor of First Baptist Church in Tarentum. “I appreciate that the government is doing something, but it’s really not a help to people who, even with unemployment, have lost 60% or so of their income.”
The larger $2,000 amount would go a lot further, said Tricia Ritchie, president and founder of The Building Block of Natrona, a local nonprofit dedicated to providing necessary resources to the community.
“Six hundred dollars will not be enough,” Ritchie said. “I believe $2,000 would be an appropriate amount. $2,000 is going to not only feed people, but help people be able to pay their rent, pay their utilities, pay for basic needs.”
The $2,000, Brock said, would certainly be more helpful, but even that wouldn’t be enough for many people facing severe financial crisis. What they need, Brock said, is multiple payments.
While the amount of the checks is one area of concern, the speed at which they’re deployed is another. For people struggling to afford necessities such as food and housing, waiting several additional weeks for a check can be challenging.
“It absolutely makes or breaks it for some people,” Ritchie said. “Some people are working two or three jobs — and the jobs they did have, the hours are reduced or they’re gone.
“Two or three weeks is the difference between having a home or not having a home. Two or three weeks is the difference between having heat or not having heat. Two or three weeks is the difference between your kids eating every day or you eating every three days. This needs to get out as soon as possible.”
Brock pointed to health insurance as a specific example of why people may need the cash fast.
“Even if you’re going through Pennie, you have to make that payment by the first of the year to secure your policy going into the next year,” she said. “If you run late, you risk the possibility of not being able to get the coverage at all. Receiving those funds quicker certainly would be an aid to people.”
Once people receive stimulus checks, budgeting the extra cash wisely is key — though it may be difficult to do for people facing unknown factors in regard to jobs and lost hours.
“It’s very hard to tell people how to budget when they don’t know what their boss is going to give them in hours or whether they’ll be able to work during the pandemic,” Ritchie said.
The bottom line, she said, is prioritizing food and shelter first.
Stimulus checks also could be put to good use catching up on important bills that people may have fallen behind on, said Michelle Gibb, executive director of the Alle-Kiski Valley Area HOPE Center. She recommended using the money to catch up on things like utility or gas bills.
The Alle-Kiski Valley Area HOPE Center emphasizes financial literacy and smart budgeting, she said, encouraging anyone in need to focus on priorities with stimulus funds.
“Look at buying food that is more non-perishable and nutritious,” she said. “Look at those basic human needs, and make sure those are taken care of.”
But for people who were already in a low-income situation before the pandemic, even wise budgeting may not be enough to make the stimulus stretch as far as they’d like.
“I really don’t know that I have an answer for the traditionally low-income — before covid — individuals,” Brock said. “I’m just so concerned for them, because they were already marginalized. They were already living check-to-check, and now they don’t have a check to live off of.”
For those people, she said, it likely won’t be possible to pay every bill and buy every necessity with one $600 check — or even one $2,000 check.
“It’s almost a put-the-hottest-fire-out-first theory, which is pay the thing that is going to cause you the most distress right now,” she said. “That requires a little bit of savvy to figure out what that is. It’s not a credit card. It’s not cable. It’s something like heat and gas and light — things that you have to have, they are absolute necessities.”
People who find that the stimulus check can’t cover their necessities should try to augment those funds with support from other local organizations and nonprofits that can assist with food and housing insecurity. Some groups also can offer advice on smart budgeting, Gibb said.
Gibb noted that of the 150 families the Alle-Kiski Valley Area HOPE Center serves through its rapid rehousing project, about 30% became food insecure during the pandemic — and they would have been housing insecure, too, if not for the rent subsidies the organization offers.
“If you look across the board at people with critical need, that would probably be 30% to 40% of people who were significantly impacted,” she said.
Those people should be the main focus of economic stimulus packages, she said, noting the current approach of sending a standard amount to everyone — regardless of need or economic status — isn’t doing enough to help the most vulnerable populations.
“It really needs to focus on critical needs,” Gibb said. “There are people in need who could use more assistance and people who have not been negatively impacted or have other means. I think the blanket relief of funds doesn’t look at the actual need.”
In the first round of stimulus checks, Gibb noted, one key demographic may have been largely overlooked — homeless people. People experiencing homelessness may not have filed their income tax, which is the roster used for sending out the checks, Gibb noted.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) launched an online tool to allow people who did not file income taxes to receive the stimulus checks, which, Gibb said, people facing homelessness should utilize.
Ultimately, Brock said, any help is appreciated, but a $600 stimulus check is simply not enough to make up for months of economic hardship.
“I don’t think it’s right, the amount. I don’t think it’s fair how it’s being done,” Brock said. “But I do think we should be thankful for what is being done.”
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