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When Unemployment Benefits End, The Way Forward For Some Is Unclear


We live in a time of great unknowns, questions hovering above us that will define our lives. You might think we're achieving greater clarity. While it's far from good news, the extent of the pandemic's toll on the U.S. economy came into better focus this past week. The GDP, a primary measure of the economy's health, shrank dramatically. Another 1.4 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, and COVID-19 infections continued to rise across the country. That's happening even in some states that have reopened, and so they now are having to reverse course.

And now, so many people are left with so many dilemmas. Will families have enough money for groceries? When can parents go back to work? Will their kids return to school in person? Should they? What does all that mean for each of us? And where can people look for leadership? We're going to spend the first half of the program today reflecting on those big questions and uncertainties that people are facing right now.

First, we're going to hear from just a couple of the millions of Americans who've been relying on a $600 weekly payment from the federal government. Those benefits expired yesterday, and Congress is still trying to come up with a solution. That leaves Becca McCulloch in Portland, Ore., awaiting clarity as she stares down a lease she may not be able to afford come winter.

BECCA MCCULLOCH: I don't even know it. That's a dark thing to think about.

FOLKENFLIK: McCulloch worked as an event coordinator for Portland's Chamber of Commerce before losing her job in March. She spent a month waiting for unemployment money to come in, then stayed quarantined as she watched coronavirus cases surge in June and July. It has not been easy.

MCULLOCH: This isn't the high old times where I get to sit on my couch and just have the money flow in. I would much prefer to be working. You know, it seems like an arbitrary date was picked that seemed far in the future, to add that bonus through July. And now here we are. And not only is this pandemic not over - it seems like we're in a worse position in a lot of the country. Then you add things like the nightly protests and riots here in Portland, and it just - it seems like kind of a grim time to be removing this extra money from people.

FOLKENFLIK: And now Becca McCulloch is waiting to see what Congress will come up with.

MCULLOCH: I've tried my best to save as much as I can because I knew that this was coming. But I also hoped that, you know, something would take its place or that it would be extended. But then with the realization that it doesn't really seem like that's going to happen, I am starting to get very nervous.

FOLKENFLIK: In Avon, Ind., outside Indianapolis, Ann Foury and her family are relying on that $600 a week to make ends meet. Foury is sending a daughter off to college in the fall and staring down mortgage payments and other major expenses.

ANN FOURY: It's definitely put a strain on us. I mean, it hurts your relation. You know, you're used to a certain level of living, and then, all of a sudden, nothing's coming in. And then the hope that you have some coming in is being taken away, so it's - puts you in a very hopeless situation.

FOLKENFLIK: Foury doesn't consider going back to work an option. She has autoimmune issues and says it would be too big of a health risk. And she says that $600 a week from the government was the bare minimum she needed to keep her family afloat.

FOURY: We've been talking about needing to now, you know, sell the house or, you know, kind of get into a smaller mortgage situation. I don't want to move in with parents at my age, but, you know, we're trying to - I feel like I'm trying to come up with a contingency plan every day, none of which have been sounding too rosy. But it's - I feel like we're living just day by day again. It's horrible.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Anne Foury. We also heard from Becca McCulloch. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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