Unemployed Georgians approaching Dec. 26 financial cliff

Federal relief payments would end without new congressional pact

Kiarica Schields says another eviction would send her to a homeless shelter, along with her children.

A hospice nurse, Schields, 29, was forced to stop working when repeated cases of the coronavirus shut her children’s daycare center. She also had to give up her studies toward a graduate degree.

Her weekly payment from a federal pandemic assistance program helps, but it doesn’t even cover her monthly rent in Peachtree Corners.

“It’s hard to get caught up when I’m getting just $211 a week,” Schields said.

Tens of thousands of Georgians have already seen their pandemic benefits dry up. Schields and hundreds of thousands of other Georgians are poised to join them as the programs expire.

On the day after Christmas.

Late Friday, Congress was still wrangling over a new pandemic relief bill, but the stakes in Georgia are clear: A large swath of jobless people and their families being pushed toward a financial cliff while the state’s economic recovery is slowed by their distress.

And because any new fiscal stimulus likely will be much smaller than the massive CARES Act of March, congressional action may only soften the blow.

“The current provisions being talked about in the package would probably only provide about a fifth as much boost to job growth as needed, for Georgia call it 30,000 jobs created or saved,” said economist Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute. “They’re leaving a lot on the table.”

About 330,000 Georgians are receiving aid from about-to-expire federal pandemic programs, estimated Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. A little more than half are eligible for an extended benefit program that the state pays for.

“And that is, if the state efficiently moves everyone on to those benefits,” he said.

About 85,000 Georgians have already exhausted their pandemic benefits.

On Thursday, the Department of Labor reported Georgia’s unemployment rate rose to 5.7% in November from 4.5% in October, another sign the state’s economy is struggling to rebound from pandemic-related shutdowns as coronavirus cases surge again.

For Bramer Stevens, 55, benefits ended just before Thanksgiving. An Atlanta fashion designer, Stevens saw a rising career shut down with the halt in dress-up events like cocktail parties, proms and weddings.

“When the pandemic happened, every last contract was canceled,” he said. “It has been extremely discouraging. It’s almost Christmas. What do I tell my daughter? Daddy doesn’t have it?”

Because he’s self-employed, he couldn’t get state benefits, but he was eligible for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. So he stays home with their daughter while his wife teaches pre-school, which doesn’t pay well, he said. “That’s a little cushion, but it’s better than no cushion at all.”

To pay expenses, they’ve depleted their savings. Their landlord knows their situation, but has not been flexible, Stevens said. “I’ll be all right this month. But what about January? What about February?”

Anabelle Moreira, 35, of Duluth lost her project manager’s job in May. Her husband was furloughed for a month, then brought back with a large cut in pay.

Her $350-a-week pandemic benefits ran out last month, she said. “I did get an extension but on the 26th, that will be gone.”

So far, they’ve managed to pay rent, groceries and other expenses. But some things had to go. Like their son’s pre-school.

“We had to take him out,” she said. “We have tapped into our savings. We are eliminating everything that is not essential.”

She is fearful about the future, but also frustrated.

“I feel so aggravated when people say, ‘They don’t want to work,’” she said. “I have worked since I was 19. I worked when I was going to school. We want to work.”

The economy has been adding jobs since May, but not as many as were lost.

Job postings are down 11.9% in the state compared to January, according to researchers at Harvard University. And while, the Georgia Department of Labor lists about 160,000 positions on its jobs site, there are far more people out of work.

More than 400,000 Georgians are currently jobless, according to an estimate by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. According to the Census Bureau, 3.9 million Georgians have experienced loss of a job or reduced hours this year.

Yet consumer spending in Georgia is only 1% below its pre-pandemic level — a sign that laid-off workers have been bolstered by government benefits. Taking those benefits away would mean they would have less to spend, which would then cut income from those businesses where they spend.

The impact will be even harsher given the continued spread of the virus, said economist Abbey Omodunbi of PNC Financial Services. “The metro Atlanta economy is likely to experience a slowdown in the next couple of months.”

Even if Congress passes a relief package, the aid is likely to be delayed and the payouts skimpier than before, so the finances of the jobless will be crimped, said economist Tom Smith of Emory’s Goizueta School of Business.

“You are going to have less economic activity,” he said. “That is not what their families need. That is not what the economy needs.”

More than one-third of the unemployed in Georgia have been out of work at least 27 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The longer people are out of work, the more likely there will be a kind of economic scarring, said Smith.

“People who are out of work a long time may come back in to a job with less responsibility or a job that has a much lower wage,” he said. “That is going to be devastating for these people.”

Households will suffer damaged credit ratings, evictions or hunger, along with psychological stress, he said.

Schields and her children have already been evicted once from a Carnesville apartment because she got behind on the rent. So far, her current landlord has been more understanding.

“Right now, I just pay what I can,” she said.