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How Things Work

The Pathetic Stimulus Won’t Be Enough to Help My Mom

She got laid off while Congress worked out how many struggling people to betray.

Image from page 287 of "Bell telephone magazine" (1922) of a woman operating a local switchboard

As the year comes to an end, the suffering continues. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that an additional 8 million people in the United States have begun experiencing poverty since this summer.

This new data comes from researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame. While overall poverty levels are historically low (12.8% of people in the U.S. were living below the poverty line in March 2019 compared to 11.7% in November), researchers found this increase to be the biggest jump in a single year in 60 years of tracking poverty. The increase has been highest for Black people and people with education up to a high school degree.

It is no coincidence that this increase happened in the months after the federal relief program ended, when millions of people are still out of work stemming from the pandemic. According to November household survey data from the U.S. Department of Labor, 10.7 million people are unemployed, a decrease from the unemployment spike from earlier this year but still 4.9 million more people than in February. 2.2 million more people are looking for work than in February, and 2.9 million people (not counted as unemployed) said they were unable to even look for work because of the pandemic.

The result could not have been more obvious. From The Post:

The economists say the sharp rise in poverty is occurring for two reasons: Millions of people cannot find jobs, and government aid for the unemployed has declined sharply since the summer. The average unemployment payment was more than $900 a week from late March through the end of July, but it fell to about $300 a week in August, making it harder for the unemployed to pay their bills.

“We’ve seen a continual rise in poverty every month since June,” said Sullivan.

As I think about this year and the millions of people who have been failed by the people who lead us, I think about my family. Earlier this year, both my dad and sibling got furloughed. When Texas prematurely ended its shutdown, my father went back to work and injured his shoulder so badly that he needed surgery and months away from work to recover. Now, still in recovery and without the full function of his arm, he’s been cleared to go back to work during the pandemic, in an indoor restaurant. In California, my sibling took a night shift job with a former employer.

And then I think about the people who’ve worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and for years before that, only to get screwed over by their employers. My mom, who worked for a major retail company, never had the option to work from home, even though her office space was prime territory for sending people home with remote workstations. So instead, she went into work during the pandemic, at a workplace where the employees skew older and have myriad health complications, and got yelled at by people who were upset that their orders were late during the pandemic, and sometimes made racist comments to express their frustration with something as understandable as a shipping delay. A far harder job than I will ever know, I am sure.

I always assumed that the creaky infrastructure of a creaky big box store was getting in the way of COVID safety precautions. But after the events of the past month, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was because her employer never wanted to invest more than it had to in her workplace, because it had always planned on screwing over its employees at this particular location.

Last week, my mom was laid off after over a decade of work for this employer. It was her birthday (she’s in her early 60s), and her managers brought her balloons, and decorated her workspace, like they always do. They all knew they were getting terminated at the end of the following day — she told me some people had the option of moving jobs, but I’ve been in this situation before and know the building staffed dozens of people, and I have my doubts that this was possible for most of them — but still, they celebrated her. The next day, the staff went into work for something of a “goodbye” breakfast (horrifying, I now realize, because of this pandemic) and then left the office for good.

The layoff plan had become clear to me a few weeks ago, when my mom told me the company was selling some office supplies to employees and their families. They were liquidating things like office chairs and computer monitors (the computers themselves had to be wiped, of course), and giving away anything else they couldn’t sell. Team mugs, reams of paper. I came into the office one day and saw it all in the lobby. I left my parents’ house the other day and saw my mom had snagged a cup of those pen-sized hand sanitizers.

Once the word was out that people were, indeed, getting laid off, a rumor circulated that employees would be getting three months of severance. It only ended up being two, with no health insurance, so my mom rushed all her medical appointments through November, anticipating this drop in coverage (she’s some years away from qualifying for Medicare, and I already know a decent marketplace plan would be offensively expensive at her age). There was an auction, too, where my parents snagged a pressure washer with missing parts for $50. And then her birthday, and then the last day of work.

My mom worked at that job for years, and I watched it take so much of her. When we were in middle and high school, the job wore her out, and she’d still come home to run the household and do the cooking and grocery shopping and bill payments and laundry. She worked so that my parents could actually have something to save and extra money to spend outside of loans and bills and other necessities. We took so much from her but it was the job that wore her down, that she always needed a break from, and that she held onto for health insurance even when it was taking more than she could give.

She’s looking forward to her future, a life beyond that grinding job, and I don’t blame her. And so while I’m not mourning her job, especially when she won’t, I am mourning all the effort she’s poured into her work, all the unnecessary harassment she took from customers, and how her employer could still just toss her and her coworkers so easily. My mom doesn’t like it when I swear in my blogs, and out of respect to her I won’t detail what I suggest this company can go do to itself, but you probably get the idea.

Even then, even considering my family’s own history of financial turmoil, I know we’re still extremely lucky. But eventually, even though my mom is tired and just wants to rest, and that’s all I want for her, my parents are going to have to figure something out. If not for my mom’s health insurance, then because they can’t afford to not work, especially given my dad’s precarious employment.

Nobody really believes that the stimulus currently being hashed out in Congress will give people the help they really need, though the rich are getting another huge bailout. Once again, the people in power are figuring out the least they can do, rather than the most.The reported contents of the new stimulus—unemployment benefits slashed to the bone, $600 checks, possibly no state or local aid—won’t be enough to help my family at all.

Again, this is what lucky is supposed to look like given the current state of economic suffering across the country, and it’s messed up that it’s this way. And yet, I can’t imagine things will get better any time soon.