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Even Santa Claus wants Congress to come together and pass another pandemic aid bill before an estimated 12 million Americans lose their unemployment benefits just one day after Christmas.
“There’s nothing in the American budget that’s more important right now than saving the American family,” said Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, an organization for the working Claus. (Erwin, however, stressed that professional Santas are a politically diverse bunch, and the order doesn’t have an official position on the stimulus bill.)
And if political leaders can’t make it happen before they ditch Washington, D.C., for the holidays in December?
“Curse upon their head, their heart, and their house if they pull something that sneaky,” added Erwin, who called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “cold as a stone.”
The U.S. House of Representatives ends its year on December 10, and the Senate on December 18. That gives legislators little time to break several months of partisan gridlock and agree on a follow-up relief bill after the successful bipartisan passage of the $2 trillion CARES Act last March.
If Congress can’t reach a deal, holiday celebrations could look bleak for many families in the midst of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Despite millions of people still being out of work, funding for two unemployment programs created by the CARES Act will end on December 26. That would impact more than half of the 20.3 million still on unemployment benefits at the end of October.
“Being a mom, I can’t just tell my 2-year-old I’m broke. And I can’t tell my 7-year-old there’s no Santa. I can’t tell them that,” said Charlotte Williamson, a 34-year-old mother of five in Vassar, Michigan.
Williamson lost her waitressing job in March. She now lives off $300 in unemployment benefits every two weeks, plus what her husband brings home after working his reduced hours at Rent-A-Center.
“So I don’t know what I’m supposed to do yet,” she added.
The first pandemic assistance bill included one program that offered financial relief to gig workers and the self-employed, and another that provided extended aid to long-term jobless people who’d exhausted regular benefits. Sarah Girard in Columbus, Ohio, has been receiving payments through the latter program.
After she was furloughed from her job in the real estate industry due to the coronavirus pandemic in April, she applied to more than 500 positions, including one gig last week as a morgue transporter.
But she’s been unlucky in that search so far. That leaves her with only $180 a week in unemployment benefits. (She asked that VICE News describe her age only as “over 50” and noted she’s faced ageism while looking for work.)
Now, doesn’t know what she’ll tell her landlord next month, since she’s recently been unable to cobble together enough money to make rent.
“I can’t do anything. I can’t see friends or family, I can’t get a tree, I can’t buy gifts, I can’t buy food,” said Girard. “I’m already rationing food and electricity and fuel; I don’t turn on the lights after dark. I sit around bundled up with the thermostat down as low as I can stand it.”
Public health experts warned this winter would be exceptionally dark. Over 250,000 people have died from COVID-19, leaving grieving families in their wake. Infections are surging across the country, including in Girard’s state. More people are once again being asked to isolate themselves to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Being a mom, I can’t just tell my 2-year-old I’m broke.
For politicians to hold their own holiday celebrations in the midst of that, while so many others suffer, would be akin to “when Marie Antoinette said: ‘Let them eat cake,’” Girard added.
“I’m one of the lucky ones — it’ll just be me sleeping in my car,” Girard said. “There are people with children who can’t feed them, can’t get them clothes they need for winter, can’t get them the electronics they need for class, have to explain why there’s no Christmas this year. That’s reprehensible.”
Leaders from both political parties remain far apart on their demands for a second package.
Democrats have pushed an expansive $2.2 trillion bill for months, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was negotiating with the White House prior to the election.
The Trump administration offered her a $1.8 trillion deal in October—far above what Republicans in Congress were willing to consider at the time. But that didn’t go anywhere. Now, according to the Washington Post, McConnell has taken the lead in brokering a deal, after sticking by a package worth about $500 billion.
“I can’t do anything. I can’t see friends or family, I can’t get a tree, I can’t buy gifts, I can’t buy food.”
In Michigan, Williamson hopes that Pelosi will work with Republicans to come up with a smaller relief package—one that could fund another round of stimulus checks and more unemployment benefits.
“Anything would help,” she said.
The consequences of the government allowing critical relief programs to end mid-pandemic could be enormous for many households.
The Century Foundation projects that just 18 states will still have some sort of extended unemployment benefit option available to those stripped from Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, the program for those who’ve used up state unemployment insurance, on December 26. That will only help an estimated 2.9 million people.
“Most other recessions, we never cut off benefits this soon,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
“On a personal economic basis, unemployment is the last thin line for most families between being able to keep their head above water” and poverty, he said.
Vicki Hass, clinical director at The ARK, a social services nonprofit that provides food, housing, employment help, and more to Chicago’s Jewish community, said the desperation is evident. People don’t just need help with one rent payment—they’re several months behind. The ARK’s food pantry is “extremely busy.” And there just aren’t enough jobs out there for everyone, Hass said.
Hass said her organization will give hundreds of gift cards to its clients ahead of Hanukkah so people can buy presents they might otherwise not be able to afford. And while The ARK won’t be able to host its usual Hanukkah party, it’ll deliver holiday meals to people in need, including the morning of Thanksgiving.
“We turn to ourselves and to each other, but we know we can’t eradicate this and help people forever,” Hass said. “There is a government that has the capacity—and we know that it has the capacity—and yet it’s ignoring, actually ignoring, the suffering of the people.”