As coronavirus wreaks havoc on the world economy, the U.S. federal government has authorized a single COVID-19 stimulus payment. And it isn't exactly huge at only $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 per qualifying dependent child under 17.
Sadly, a look at the finances of millions of Americans reveals this paltry payout won't be nearly enough to see them through the great lockdown. In fact, it's clear more help from Uncle Sam is necessary for many because their finances were precarious even when the economy was good.
Americans don't have the resources to weather the storm
Before COVID-19 forced the U.S. economy to a standstill, unemployment was near record lows and most people were optimistic about the state of their finances. Yet even during these boom times, 33% of Americans were within three missed paychecks of being unable to pay all their bills or being forced to borrow money, according to research from Northwestern Mutual.
Unfortunately, millions of Americans who have lost jobs or seen their hours cut due to the great lockdown have already missed more than those three paychecks and are likely finding themselves faced with difficult choices. And while many creditors are working with those who can't pay bills and moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs should prevent them from facing immediate consequences if they can't cover costs, payments are still due.
With bank accounts running dry and no further stimulus funds, these individuals and families could end up with back payments due and other debts they'll struggle to repay when the coronavirus recession ends. This could have long-term consequences both for them and for the economy as a whole if they don't have money to spend to support local businesses once they open up again.
Other expanded benefits can't make up the difference for everyone
While COVID-19 stimulus payments weren't the only source of aid the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act provided, they are the only direct transfer of cash the government authorized.
The CARES Act did provide expanded unemployment benefits, but around half of those receiving aid said their unemployment checks still don't provide enough to help them keep up with expenses. Benefits still aren't available to everyone, either. And while the CARES Act did provide some jobless benefits to the self-employed or gig workers, states are struggling to update aging systems to incorporate them.
Other options for relief, such as relaxed rules on withdrawing or borrowing from retirement accounts, provide little help for families living on the financial edge who don't have a 401(k) or IRA they can raid.
Those without hefty retirement accounts or jobs that lead to generous unemployment benefits are the most likely to have no emergency fund and to need their paychecks -- and they're often the most likely to lose them during a recession. For all those who were already struggling and were three missed paychecks or fewer from disaster, additional stimulus money could be the best way to avoid a debt cycle that affects their personal finances and has broader economic consequences for a long time to come.
Will more stimulus checks be forthcoming?
Although it's far from certain more COVID-19 stimulus payments will be authorized, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that there's a need and have indicated they're open to the possibility.
The fact that over one-third of American families have missed more paychecks than they said they could afford without going into debt or skipping bills is a clear indicator that government leaders should act sooner rather than later if they hope to make a real difference in mitigating the financial pain of coronavirus over the short term and the long term.