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Americans Struggle To Make Ends Meet As Chaos Surrounds Talks For More Pandemic Aid

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It has been more than six months since Congress passed a coronavirus relief package. Most of that aid is now gone while the pandemic is not, and Democrats and the president are deadlocked over any new relief.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Megan Shaw owns a nutrition store in Jackson, Ga., and she says she can't afford to wait.

MEGAN SHAW: Like, I don't care about Democrats, Republicans. There are people like me who were counting on something like that. Things are just completely bottom-up.

CHANG: Shaw says she didn't really get enough from a federal loan program that was part of the last relief bill, and her savings have been drained. She stopped paying herself in order to pay her one single employee.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Samantha Stewart manages a string quartet in Austin, Texas. With weddings and other events canceled, she says a one-time relief check sent by the government did help.

SAMANTHA STEWART: I had to put off car payments and some other payments, so that first $1,200 really saved me.

KELLY: But that $1,200 is long gone.

CHANG: And so is Federico Alves' patience. He says his telecommunication business in Clearwater, Fla., won't survive the year without more help. He's a Republican but says he blames the GOP.

FEDERICO ALVES: I feel dismayed. I feel angry, and I feel they are playing games with our lives.

KELLY: All right. Well, let's talk more now about what is at stake for many Americans if no new relief comes through. I want to bring in NPR's Scott Horsley.

Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Hey. So how typical are those folks we just heard? Do we have data on how many Americans are counting on another round of help from the federal government?

HORSLEY: You know, those voices are speaking for a lot of people. The Census Bureau has been doing weekly surveys to find out how folks are faring during the pandemic. And the latest snapshot from late September found 1 in 3 adults was having trouble paying their ordinary household expenses, like food and rent. That was especially true among households with children. So a lot of families are feeling the pinch - businesses, too. The Business Roundtable, which represents some of the biggest corporations in America - they're concerned about customers' spending power and warning the country is on the precipice of a downward spiral unless there's more federal aid. At the more mom-and-pop level, you know, a lot of restaurants have been eking out a living with takeout and outdoor dining. And they say they're not going to make it through the winter without a helping hand from Washington.

KELLY: And worth noting, Scott, it's not just ordinary Americans saying this. The same point was made this week by Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

HORSLEY: That's right. He told a group of business economists that, typically, when you have a wave of layoffs, as we did during the spring, the people who lose their jobs stop spending, and then that triggers even more layoffs. The way Powell put it was weakness feeds on weakness. Now, even though we lost 22 million jobs in the spring, Powell says, so far, the U.S. has managed to avoid that kind of snowball effect, largely thanks to all the money that the federal government just showered on businesses and consumers. But as you pointed out at the top, much of that relief money has now run out, and we continue to see layoffs at airlines and theme parks. Powell warned unless there's another round of relief, we could slip into that kind of recessionary spiral. And he says it would be hardest on those who can least afford it.

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JEROME POWELL: A long period of unnecessarily slow progress could continue to exacerbate existing disparities in our economy. That would be tragic, especially in light of our country's progress on these issues in the years leading up to the pandemic.

HORSLEY: Powell said this week policymakers should err on the side of doing too much rather than too little.

KELLY: Scott, if you were looking for signs that help is on the way, these last 24 hours, you would have squinting into total blackness. But explain this. The stock market got a big bounce today. What's going on with that?

HORSLEY: That's right. The Dow jumped about 530 points, nearly 2%. That more than made up for yesterday, when the market plunged after the president abruptly halted talks on a big relief package. Now, Trump did tweet overnight that he would be willing to go along with a few narrower relief bills, including one for airlines. But that doesn't seem to be getting any traction with lawmakers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a short phone call with the Treasury secretary today, and she reminded him that Republicans in the House had blocked a standalone airline bill. Nevertheless, investors seem to be betting there will be additional aid. Maybe that's a bet they'll win, or maybe they'll look back and say they got fooled by the president's tweets.

KELLY: That is NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.