Personal Finance

Pandemic-era relief is drying up. But families still have options

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Key Points
  • Many of the relief programs created during the pandemic to help struggling families are winding down.
  • Yet there will still be some help available.
  • Here's what you need to know.
Hunter Hastings / 500px | 500px | Getty Images

Although everyone wants to leave the pandemic behind, the loss of the financial relief many families received because of the crisis will be less easy to part with.

Stimulus checks, more generous jobless benefits, expanded money to feed children and other aid and protections kept the worst at bay in many households, and made life more tolerable during a particularly dark period. The fact that so many Americans lived paycheck-to-paycheck before the pandemic made the relief all the more necessary.

Now much of that help is drying up.

Here's what you need to know about the expiration of the programs, and what aid will still be available to you.

Stimulus checks

Congress authorized the first stimulus checks of $1,200 per person in March 2020. Payments of up to $600 and $1,400 followed in December and this past March, respectively. Another round is unlikely.

Yet certain families began receiving additional cash payments in the form of a child tax credit, part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

The law upped the existing child tax credit to $3,000 from $2,000 and added a $600 bonus for children under the age of 6 for the 2021 tax year. From July to December, families can get half the credit in monthly installments, which range from $250 to $300.

Unemployment benefits

Jobless benefits were greatly expanded during the pandemic, with people able to receive the checks for longer than normal and with an additional federal boost. Certain people, including gig workers and the self-employed, who previously didn't qualify for the aid became eligible.

Now federal benefits are scheduled to end on Sept. 6, at which point 7.5 million Americans will stop getting the money. (Although 26 states have already cut unemployed workers off from the federal funds.)

"There will be a substantial loss of benefits," said Stephen Wandner, a senior fellow at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

Twenty/20

After Labor Day, those receiving Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation (PEUC) benefits in some states — likely Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico — may be eligible for additional money through the Federal-State Extended Benefit program, according to The Century Foundation.

That program offers another 13 weeks to 20 weeks of checks, but is only available to those who haven't already tapped it.

Most unemployed people will have to amp up their work search in the coming weeks, Wandner said.

He recommends reaching out now to one of the more than 2,000 American Job Centers across the country, which help people with the job-seeking process.

Eviction ban

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a historic ban on evictions across the U.S. last September. That protection expired on July 31; however, this month the health agency announced a new moratorium until Oct. 3 in areas with high Covid rates.

You'll be covered by the order if your county has a "substantial" or "high" level of cases. On the CDC's website, you can see if you're located in a qualifying area. Some 80% of counties in the country should be covered.

Keep in mind that you'll lose the protection if your county has 14 consecutive days that fall below those levels, said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University.

As a result, she said, "it will be important to monitor the Covid rates in their community."

You should also learn of any local protections to which you might be entitled: A number of states have their own policies limiting evictions, regardless of Covid rates. Renters in New Jersey, for example, can't be kicked out of their homes until January.

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There continues to be a massive pot of federal rental assistance available to those struggling, as well. If you haven't applied for the aid yet and are worried about eviction, you should do so as soon as possible, experts say.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has a state-by-state list of the 484 programs giving out the aid. A new tool by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can also help you apply for rental relief. If you're approved, you could get up to 18 months of your rent covered.

Just doing so could help you stay in your home longer.

At least four states — Massachusetts, Nevada, New York and Oregon — are temporarily banning evictions against those with a rental assistance application pending.

Student loans

Since March 2020, federal student loan borrowers have been given the option to press the pause button on their monthly bills, without interest accruing on their debt. Some 90% of borrowers have been doing so.

Come October, unless the reprieve is extended, those bills will be due again.

But those who continue to struggle financially will have options. If you're still unemployed or not earning enough to resume your payments, you can apply for an economic hardship or unemployment deferment. Those are the ideal ways to postpone your bills because interest doesn't accrue under them.

If you don't qualify for either, though, you can use a forbearance to keep your payments paused. Just keep in mind that interest will rack up and your balance will be larger (sometimes much larger) when you resume paying.

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If you expect your financial woes to last a while, it may make sense to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan.

Those plans aim to make borrowers' payments more affordable by capping their monthly bills at a percentage of their discretionary income and forgiving any of their remaining debt after 20 years or 25 years.

Health insurance

Congress passed legislation during the public health crisis that increased the tax credits available to people buying health insurance plans on the Affordable Care Act's marketplace, said Sabrina Corlette, co-director of the Center on Health Insurance Reforms at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.

Fortunately, those credits, which reduce Americans' out-of-pocket health-care expenses, will continue to be available through 2022. And there's a chance they'll be around for longer, although legislators are still debating the matter.

Certain jobless Americans also became eligible in the pandemic for six months of free coverage through COBRA, or the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

That subsidy, however, will end on Sept. 30, "and at this time I am not aware of any plans to try to extend that," Corlette said.

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If you were using that option and won't be able to afford the monthly premiums on your own, come October you'll be entitled to a special enrollment period on the marketplace, Corlette said.

And if you've been approved for unemployment insurance for a week or more in 2021, you'll be eligible for a plan with a $0 monthly premium.

People should also keep in mind that federal law requires insurers to fully cover the cost of Covid-19 vaccines, Corlette said.

"Since it's looking more and more likely we'll be needing vaccine boosters, I'm happy to say that that vaccine coverage should be a long-term benefit," she said.

Food stamps

During the pandemic, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits were increased by 15% a month for all recipients.

That left families with around $25 more per person, per month. A family of four got an extra $100.

That boost, however, only runs through Sept. 30.

Still, a number of states received extra SNAP allotments during the pandemic, which left some beneficiaries with additional money. Those bigger benefits can continue as long as the federal government has declared a public health emergency (and the state's emergency declaration remains in place).

All SNAP recipients are eligible year-round for the Double Up Bucks program, which is available in 25 states, and allows people to get twice the amount of fruits and vegetables for their money.

Families still worried about being able to afford enough food come October can also look for food banks in their neighborhood at FeedingAmerica.org.

You can also call the Why Hunger Hotline at 1-800-5-HUNGRY, or text your Zip Code to 1-800-548-6479 to get connected to local emergency food providers and soup kitchens in your area.