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'I've never been so broke in my life:' Cash-strapped Americans grapple with Covid at Christmastime

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Shelley Noble (third from right) and her children (left to right) Jake, Zach, Sam, Zoey and Nico, at Zach's house.
Courtesy of Shelley Noble

Normally, Ilene Toney and her children make meals each Christmas season to feed the unhoused people in their Sacramento, California, neighborhood. The 36-year-old was once homeless herself and says she understands how important it is to give back when you can.

But this year, Toney doesn't have enough money to buy her two children Christmas gifts, never mind give meals away. Talking from the line at her local food bank, Toney says that while on paper Covid-19 hasn't changed things much for her family — they still receive the Social Security disability payments that they lived on before — having her school-aged children home with her for most of the year has stretched her budget to its max. Both of them have special education needs, and she's had to pay for tutors to make sure they stay on track with their remote classes.

Ilene Toney's children, Izzac and Lillyana, and her fiance, Gerald Bright.
Courtesy of Ilene Toney

Though a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a federal stimulus bill they called a "Christmas miracle" earlier this week, any aid included is not likely to make it to Americans before the holidays.

As relief talks drag on, Toney, like so many other Americans, has had to get creative with her budgeting over the past nine months, maximizing every penny to make ends meet. Christmas gifts and decorations just don't fit into the calculations this year for her household.

"I pick and choose which month I'm going to pay which bills," Toney says. "It's very time consuming, the budgeting, down to the last bit of toilet paper we're going to use."

A second stimulus check from the government would do wonders for her budget, she says, but an eviction moratorium and rent relief are especially important to her.

"People are losing their homes left and right," she says. "Stop evictions so people can live and be okay and have a roof over our heads. And that would totally help with stopping the spread of Covid-19."

'I've never been so broke in my life'

Shelley Noble's household is foregoing a Christmas tree this year. "I can't bear to put one up and not have presents," Noble says.

The 52-year-old, who is still recovering after she contracted the coronavirus over the summer, isn't feeling festive this year: She lost all of her part-time gigs — including cleaning some houses and restaurants — at the beginning of the pandemic. Compounding the problem, the Social Security benefits she's received since her husband's death in 2013 were cut in half in November after her daughter turned 18.

Since then, it's been a struggle to keep up with all of her bills while feeding three of her children who still live with her at home in Des Moines, Iowa.

A $600 water bill and $3,000 in missed car payments are weighing on her mind; her focus each month is to make her mortgage payments so her children have somewhere safe to live. She recently started making deliveries for DoorDash, though it is hard to be away long from her son, Sam, 16, who has Down Syndrome. Still, lingering effects from Covid-19, including shortness of breath and exhaustion, make it one of the few jobs she is physically able to do right now.

"I've never been so broke in my life," says Noble. "I never thought in a million years I'd be looking for change in my junk drawer to buy milk for my kids. It belittles you."

'No Christmas, but we have each other'

Mildred P., who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, has been the sole provider for her family of seven since July, when her husband lost his job. In November, she and her husband sat down with their four oldest children (she also has an 8-month old) to tell them that, with overdue rent and utility bills, there wouldn't be enough money for Christmas gifts this year. "They were devastated," she says.

She says a Christmas without a tree, gifts or decorations is another "first" for the family in a year full of them. She's been frustrated that Congress hasn't acted yet to send more relief to struggling families. Even if they passed a stimulus bill soon, she says, it wouldn't save Christmas this year.

Still, she is an optimist, and hopes her children will take away valuable lessons from this difficult year.

"I encouraged my kids to remember that there are families far more worse off than us and to be grateful that we still are alive," she says. "That gave them perspective, and they very much understood."

And she is hopeful that her family's fortune will soon change. She recently secured a better-paying job in Georgia, and the whole family is moving just after the new year.

"No Christmas," she says. "But we have each other."

Check out: The bipartisan coronavirus relief bill unveiled Monday includes more UI benefits—here's what to know

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