How 2 families are struggling to stay afloat through COVID-19 unemployment

Nick Stamford / Keith Walker(NEW YORK) — At Nick Stamford’s home just north of San Francisco, he and his fiancée, Angela Christian, are hashing out what groceries they can afford to pick up.  “Anything else you think we need? Milk?” Stamford asks Christian in a video diary sent to ABC News “Nightline.” She says they already have some and suggests juice for their kids.  “I’d love to get juice. We just can’t afford it,” he responds.

It’s a scene playing out in millions of homes across the United States right now. Stamford is one of over 16 million Americans who are unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With four children, there’s just not enough money coming in.

“We’re getting by. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful,” said Stamford, who worked as an HVAC salesman.
“I’m trying to stay positive for the kids, but [there are] certainly tears at night sometimes,” Christian added. “We don’t know when the next payment is going to come in.”

For this grocery run, the two parents discussed spending between $50 and $75 out of a $150 weekly budget.

Christian still has her job working from home for now. Stamford, who had already applied for unemployment benefits, said he received a debit card in the mail and his first deposit at the end of March.  “I told [Christian] that I had lost my job and the first thing that we did is … sign up for unemployment,” Stamford said. “I have no other options as far as my type of work.”  The unemployment benefits payment totaled $450, only about a third of what he says he typically brings home, and not even close to what the family needs.

Navigating the new economic normal is a journey full of potholes, frustration and confusion. As more businesses stay closed, a growing number of people are depending on government assistance.  The financial services company Moody’s Analytics predicts that as many as 45 million jobs are at risk of being eliminated due to the pandemic. The firm calls that a “conservative” estimate.  A new national poll from Monmouth University also reveals just how much Americans are struggling: Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they lost some income due to a decrease in hours or business. Just over a quarter of Americans said they or someone in their household had been laid off because of COVID-19 and about one in five are struggling to pay their bills.

“We’re barely scraping by, we’re getting behind, we’re struggling and we really need this money,” Stamford said. “I just feel like the system that’s in place right now is not working.”

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Virginia, salon owner Keith Walker and his partner Billy Baker aren’t sure how they’ll make ends meet this month.  “Day 12, early in the morning, preparing to have my phone interview with food stamps to see if I can get those,” Walker said in a video diary sent to ABC News “Nightline.”

Both men are out of work right now and neither qualifies for unemployment even though Walker has run a successful salon for a decade.  “I have been left behind,” Walker told “Nightline.” “Still, as of right now, [I have] no idea if anything is going to come through.”

What’s more, the couple is in the middle of adopting four children, all of whom are under 6 years old.

Walker said that after visiting the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office to apply for the program, he received “a ‘whopping’ $27 a month for four children to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.”  “The other morning, my 4-year-old wanted waffles for breakfast … and we had no waffles and I couldn’t go to the grocery store,” Walker said. “We had to all sit down at the breakfast table and I had to say, ‘Listen guys, there’s a lot of sick people in the world and we need to stay healthy and we need to stay safe and so we need to stay home.’”

The government has launched several programs for small businesses like Walker’s.  “The sort of heartbreaking part of all of this is how rapidly small businesses had to shut down and lay people off and how hard it has been for them to get access to the funds that were allocated for them and whether or not those funds are even structured right,” said Diane Swonk, a chief economist at Grant Thronton LLP.  “We know almost half of small businesses can’t make it more than two months [without revenue] and we’re coming up on that mark now,” she added.

Walker said he has been applying for loans and unemployment and estimates he only has a few weeks before he’ll need some kind of income. He said he’s “disappointed, confused, angry” with how difficult it’s been to get financial assistance.“People like me, we apply, we apply, we apply … and here I am, in week five, week six, whatever week it is [with] zero income,” Walker said.

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers are under pressure to approve a fourth wave of funding. The first three included the $1,200 one-time relief payments, which are being sent out this week, and the $600 per week expansion to standard unemployment benefits, as well as loans for small business owners. But money from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which is designed to support small businesses in hard times, may already be out of money, according to the federal government’s Small Business Administration.

As of April 10, nearly 4 million small businesses had applied for EIDL funding, requesting a total of $383 billion, according to the SBA. Congress had allocated only $17 billion for expanding EIDL and Congress isn’t back in session until April 20.

Swonk says that still isn’t enough.  “We’re going to need more than that for a different era and certainly a different kind of crisis, not one that was ever meant to weather this kind of crisis,” Swonk said. “We will get more of the small business funding out, there will be more liquidity, but is it in all the places we need? No, absolutely not.”

Stamford and Christian hoped that his unemployment benefits would at least hold them over another week. That is, until Stamford made a devastating discovery: Fraudulent charges were found on the debit card holding his unemployment funds.

“So now I have to cancel my card and order a new one,” Stamford said.  “Everyday, it adds more stress,” he said, “and I feel like [the debit card issue] was almost a breaking point for me.”

Christian said she believes the one-time stimulus checks are helpful but aren’t going to be enough for families struggling through the pandemic. She also thinks there’s “a lot more” that the federal government can do to help.

Meanwhile, in an effort to earn some income, Walker has been preparing to-go hair color kits and dropping them off at his clients’ doorsteps.  “No interaction, no contact,” he said. “They either pay me by Venmo or they’ll leave a check taped to the front door.”

Walker said that right now, his faith and his children are getting him through.

“As frustrating as it is, I know that it will be OK, and I just have to hold it together for one more day,” he said. “That’s what I tell myself each day — just hold it together one more day, be strong for the kids one more day and things will change. And if not, we’ll still be OK.”

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