Nov 27, 2020 - Economy

Cold December as safety nets expire

Illustration of a melting dollar sign made out of ice

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Safety nets are likely to be yanked from underneath millions of vulnerable Americans in December, as the coronavirus surges.

Why it matters: Those most at risk are depending on one or more relief programs that are set to expire, right as the economic recovery becomes more fragile than it's been in months.

  • Those relief programs include special unemployment benefits and penalty-free pauses in mortgage and student loan payments.

What's going on: Economic support measures were created earlier this year as lawmakers thought the pandemic would be under control by now.

  • Now that the deadlines are approaching, the virus is worse than it's ever been — and Congress looks unlikely to re-up the support measures.
  • Adding to the pressure: Congress has taken initial steps to avert a government shutdown, but they have less than two weeks to hash out the final details of a spending package before the Dec. 11 deadline.

What they're saying: "It's a really tough time for these folks and they are caught in the middle of stupid Washington politics," Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, tells Axios.

  • "Maybe they lost their job in April and got it back in July and now they're losing it again. And they don't know if they can feed their kids and pay the rent."
  • There's hope that a vaccine will come and perhaps alleviate economic pressure, but until then, "this is a really important time to give people that bridge," Gleckman says.
  • Over one-third of Americans say they live in households where it is difficult to afford household expenses, including food, rent or mortgage, and student loans — the highest share in six weeks, according to the Census Household Survey.

Among the programs set to vanish next month:

Unemployment: Over 13 million Americans are relying on weekly unemployment checks through two programs that are weeks away from expiration, according to government figures released Thursday. (The number of participants may be slightly overstated, thanks to reporting issues from state unemployment offices.)

  • The impact is a roughly $39 billion income shortfall, assuming the unemployed workers can't find another job or alternate income support — a possible outcome, if potential state lockdowns further weaken the labor market.
  • The result is as much as a 1.2 percentage point drag on next quarter's economic growth (on an annualized basis), Bank of America estimates.

Housing: After Dec. 31, homeowners can't request penalty-free forbearance for federally-backed mortgage payments. The measure also stopped mortgage lenders from starting a foreclosure process. About 2.7 million homeowners are depending on some sort of forbearance plan.

  • For renters: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's order that halted rental evictions expires next month, too.

Student loans: The CARES Act paused payments on government-backed student loans without interest.

  • About 22 million student loan borrowers took advantage of the payment pause, according to estimates by Student Loan Hero based on government payment status reports.
  • Nearly 3 million borrowers with government-owned federal loans were already in forbearance before the pandemic hit, Student Loan Hero's Andrew Pentis tells Axios.

State aid: Whatever isn’t expended of the $139 billion allocated to states in the CARES Act will disappear at the end of the year.

  • States have so far allocated more than 89% of the funds, according to an October survey by the National Governors Association.
  • States also won't be able to turn to a Federal Reserve lending program for aid, since that's set to expire next month, too.

The bottom line: The expiring measures could be a double or triple whammy for those hardest hit by the pandemic.

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