Andrew Fletcher made sure to treat himself with the $600 check he received from the federal government as part of the coronavirus relief package passed on Dec. 27: He bought a 3 Musketeers candy bar, retail price 99 cents.
The musician and acting chair of the Asheville Downtown Commission, who says his performance income for 2020 was down 90% from what he expected due to pandemic-related business closures, spent the rest of that money to cover three-quarters of his combined rent and bills for one month.
An informal poll of Xpress readers found that Fletcher isn’t alone in putting his federal COVID-19 relief funds toward the basic necessities of life. Other Western North Carolina residents said they spent their checks on health insurance premiums, phone bills and repairs to the homes in which they’re spending much more time due to social distancing guidelines.
The $600 checks, distributed to all Americans who earned less than $75,000 in 2019, represent the first federal assistance many in WNC have received to cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic since the first coronavirus relief package was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. Kathleen Lawlor, an assistant professor of economics at UNC Asheville, says the $1,200 individual payments included in that legislation helped area residents avoid falling into poverty early in the crisis.
But as Lawlor points out, the new, smaller payments will arrive after nine months of business closures, high unemployment and rising local rents. According to nonprofit research project Opportunity Insights, employment among Buncombe County residents making less than $27,000 per year was down more than 34% as of Oct. 22, the latest point for which data is available, compared with Jan. 15, 2020. And housing website Apartment List reported that median Asheville rents were 5.4% higher in December 2020 than they were a year prior.
“I am not confident that just this one-off payment in January is going to yield the same impacts in terms of what we saw with the March payments,” Lawlor says. “We’re so dependent on the tourism sector and so many people working for restaurants and breweries and as musicians, and all of that has been shut down for a long time. … For Asheville in particular, this is not going to be enough.”
Lawlor’s analysis squares with the situation being reported by area charitable organizations. MANNA FoodBank notes that food insecurity across its 16-county WNC service area has increased 68% since the start of the pandemic, higher than the national average increase of 60%. Pisgah Legal Services, which offers free legal aid to those facing eviction, has also recorded thousands of phone calls in recent months from residents in danger of becoming homeless due to coronavirus-related income loss.
Although a statewide eviction moratorium remains in effect through at least Sunday, Jan. 31, Jackie Kiger, chief operations officer for PLS, points out that all rent will come due when that moratorium expires. The delay has given renters more time to pay, but for those who remain unemployed, the bills continue to grow larger.
“Many of our clients are also struggling to keep the heat and lights on and put food on the table for themselves and their families, and $600 doesn’t go far,” Kiger says of the new coronavirus relief. “With the increased numbers of COVID-19 in our region, state and country, additional protections to ensure housing during the coldest months of the winter and additional support for payments of rent, utilities, mortgages and other basic needs are very necessary at this time.”
It remains unclear whether the federal government will provide additional support, at least in the short term. Although both Trump, a Republican, and congressional Democrats have proposed that $2,000 direct payments be sent to individuals, legislation to that effect was blocked by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the end of December. Democrats have objected to a subsequent proposal by McConnell that would tie the money to the repeal of liability protection for social media companies and the creation of a new election integrity committee.
Republican Madison Cawthorn, WNC’s House representative, did not commit to supporting either McConnell’s bill or stand-alone $2,000 checks in a response by spokesperson Micah Bock to an Xpress request for comment. Although Cawthorn acknowledges that the $600 relief payments are not “enough to revive NC-11’s economy,” Bock wrote, he thinks that government assistance isn’t a long-term solution to the coronavirus’s damage.
“Madison believes that the fight between $600 and $2,000 misses the point,” Bock explained. “Madison wants North Carolinians to have an extra $20,000 or $200,000 by slashing regulations, supporting small businesses and keeping taxes low.”
But Lawlor maintains that extra aid is needed to match the unprecedented disruption of the pandemic and plug gaps in existing programs. She points out that some workers, particularly women, left jobs or scaled back hours to care for children who were not in school due to COVID-19 closures. Because such moves are considered “voluntary,” those leaving were ineligible for unemployment insurance.
“What would be better would be if, since March, [Congress] had enacted some sort of program that provided regular, monthly direct payments to households to give people some certainty,” Lawlor says. “People need to know what’s going to happen next month and the month after that.”
Share the wealth
Even as great need remains among WNC’s lowest-income residents, many of the federal checks are headed to households in comparatively stable economic shape. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2018, at least 10,000 Asheville households fell between the area median income of $44,900 and the $112,500 income cut-off for heads of households to receive the full $600.
Lawlor says economists debate whether that broad approach to payments is more effective than programs that are tied directly to employment or that target the poor more tightly. She argues that because of administration problems with more complex programs — as of September, 12 million Americans were still waiting for owed unemployment benefits, according to a Bloomberg analysis of Census Bureau data — it’s better to cast a wider safety net.
“There’s risks when you do targeting that you’re going to miss a lot of people, particularly in this context of economic disruption,” Lawlor says. “If you are going to do targeting in this coronavirus context, it has to be very generous, and it will inevitably include some upper-middle-class people that perhaps don’t need the payments.”
Several readers told Xpress that, after analyzing their own financial situations, they’d decided to donate the entirety of their relief money to community causes. Cindy Amberg of Asheville said that she and her husband, as active retirees on a fixed income, wanted to help those who had been more deeply affected by the pandemic.
“With the federal funds, we will support Asheville Strong, which is doing great things (including Feed Our City and grants to local businesses), MANNA FoodBank and Asheville Humane Society, to name a few,” Amberg said. “We are also getting takeout food more frequently from restaurants and food trucks.”
Lawlor applauds that civic-mindedness as a sort of grassroots corrective to the broad relief payments. Political leaders should nudge their well-off constituents to invest their checks in local nonprofits or businesses, she says — a message that she’s found lacking throughout the pandemic.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity to really encourage a spirit of civic engagement and remind us of how we’re all connected and we need to support each other,” she says.