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‘Things are getting much worse’ Why the new surge in coronavirus cases could be so damaging to Americans’ finances, on top of their health

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Coronavirus infection tallies are climbing relentlessly right now, but case counts aren’t the only measurement going the wrong direction.

A growing number of people are finding it tough to afford enough food, pay for typical household goods and stay current on their rent and mortgage compared to five weeks prior, according to running statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, time is running out on government-enacted financial relief for struggling households and payment pauses on debts such as student loan balances. Capitol Hill talks for another stimulus bill are stalling, just like the transition between President Donald Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden.

In other words, the surge in coronavirus cases couldn’t have come at a worse time for Americans’ financial well-being, on top of the implications for their physical health.


‘Things are getting much worse, but policymakers aren’t in action mode and they barely make time to talk to one another now.’


— Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Century Foundation.

“Things are getting much worse, but policymakers aren’t in action mode and they barely make time to talk to one another now,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Century Foundation.

Twelve million Americans will have their unemployment benefits drop to $0 a day after Christmas, according to his research on gig workers and others who are close to exhausting their benefits.

As of Monday, there were 12.2 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 256.837 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Public health officials have been ringing alarms on rising COVID-19 case numbers as winter nears, even as vaccines with promising results move closer to government approval.

Here’s look at the various ways the latest surge imperils finances at this precarious point.

Holding on to jobs and unemployment benefits

The economy added 638,000 jobs and the jobless rate dropped to 6.9% in October. But even on the heels of a surprisingly strong jobs report, some economists said there were “red lights” ahead in November if rising coronavirus cases crimped re-hiring or forced more shutdown orders.

Minnesota imposed a four-week shutdown order on bars, restaurants and gyms starting Nov. 20 and Philadelphia is taking a similar step. Initial jobless claims in the week ending Nov. 14 were up for the first time in more than a month. The 742,000 claims beat the 710,000 claims predicted by economists talking to MarketWatch.

That matters because pots of supplemental unemployment insurance money are running out, if they haven’t already. There was the $600-a-week supplemental federal unemployment benefit, which was authorized by the $2.2 trillion CARES act in March. That ended in July. Then there was an additional $300/week reallocated from a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund, which ended in early fall.

Now there’s the Dec. 31 official close of the CARES act’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which applies to gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed. There could be a collective $226 billion drop when that money source ends, according to some projections.

Many of the people likely to file for unemployment benefits in the coming weeks will be from sectors like hospitality, food and beverages, Stettner said. These workers are also likely to have already filed for unemployment benefits earlier in the year.

Making mortgage and rent payments

In early November, 8.5% of polled Americans told the U.S. Census Bureau they were either behind on their rent or mortgage, or they had little or no confidence they could make that payment on time next month. That number had crept up from 7.2% in late August.

The share of people behind on housing payments has inched up even while a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium on evictions is in effect through Dec. 31. Housing advocates say the moratorium has exceptions and ways to put tenants out in the cold, or crammed into other places with too many others.

Don’t miss:The messy, legally murky eviction of a North Carolina single mother — despite the CDC’s moratorium: ‘Nobody’s enforcing it’

After Biden becomes president, the National Housing Law Project said “a broader and true eviction moratorium is essential to control the spread of coronavirus, protect poor tenants, and give families stability through this crisis.”

Putting food on the table

Over 50 million people — including 17 million children — could experience food insecurity this year, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks and pantries across the country.

Census figures show more people saying they haven’t had enough to eat in the past seven days. It was 8.5% of survey participants in early November, compared to 7.2% in late August.

Read: ‘There is always a need for food assistance’: 10 ways you can help people this Thanksgiving

If you are struggling to pay for food right now, start by seeing whether you’re eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the country’s major food safety-net program, formerly known as food stamps. SNAP provides benefits through an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, which you can use to purchase groceries at an approved retail store.

Apply for SNAP in the state where you live, as different states have their own application forms and processes; eligibility is based on criteria including income and resource limits.

During the pandemic, as SNAP offices have struggled with increased demand, the application process and rules have been streamlined, said Ellen Vollinger, the legal director for the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). “People mostly are applying remotely, and if they’re approved, they’re getting a higher benefit than they normally would get,” she added.

Special policies to help parents work and child care are ending soon

New York City’s public schools, the country’s largest school system, went to all remote learning last week after COVID-19 positivity passed a certain threshold. Pittsburgh, Penn.-area schools are doing the same, Denver’s public schools are going all remote after Thanksgiving and handfuls of the other districts are doing the same.

So who’s going to watch all these kids? In many cases, it will be parents who have to juggle work obligations while making sure their kids are logged onto their Zoom
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  calls and Google
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 Meet classes.

Here’s the thing: a federal paid leave law specially designed so people can take paid time off work is coming to a close on Dec. 31. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act applies to covered workers who need paid time for their own sick leave, time to care for others or a child stuck at home with a closed school.

Like the eviction moratorium, advocates say the leave laws, and the span of other state and local leave laws, don’t go far enough.

Approximately 30% of all American workers are shielded by state and local laws guarding against family responsibility discrimination, according to a report released Wednesday by the University of California, Hastings College of the Law’s Center for WorkLife Law.

“Bias against workers because of their family caregiving responsibilities was widespread long before the pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis has drastically magnified the problem,” the researchers wrote.

Elisabeth Buchwald, Meera Jagannathan and Jacob Passy contributed to this report.



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My ex-wife passed away. I’m the beneficiary on her life insurance. Her family wants me to pay her funeral expenses and won’t leave me alone

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I am 32, and just a month ago I found out that my ex-wife, whom I haven’t spoken to since we divorced, passed away tragically in a moped accident. My ex-wife had life insurance through her job. My ex-mother-in-law informed my father that my ex-wife had kept me as her beneficiary on her life-insurance policy, and her family wants the money for funeral costs, bills, etc.

Not only did my ex-wife have me on her policy as the primary (and only) beneficiary, she updated my home address on the policy after we divorced. Also, I found out through the insurance company that my ex-wife had two term life-insurance policies, one for me and one for my ex-sister-in-law.

I blocked my ex-in-laws, and now I received a threatening voicemail from a blocked number, so I’ve taken it upon myself to notify the authorities. I live in New York, I am remarried, and my divorce was very simple and easy. We left the marriage with what we came into it with. The life-insurance company approved the check in my name, and is sending it to my home.

Am I legally in the clear? I have not spoken to or bothered these people once since we divorced five years ago. I just want to be left alone and move on with my life.

Thank you very much in advance.

Best regards,

Fed-Up Ex-Husband

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Fed Up,

First, I’ll deal with your life insurance concerns, and then the subject of your ex-wife’s funeral expenses.

The life-insurance policy was between your ex-wife and her insurer. It’s possible to overturn a life-insurance policy if it explicitly goes against the terms of a divorce decree, as happened in this case, but that too was a complicated lawsuit. Some states do have statutes that can revoke such beneficiary arrangements.

In “Kaye Melin and Metropolitan Life Insurance,” the children of the deceased were awarded the proceeds from the life-insurance policy, not the ex-wife who was named as beneficiary on the agreement. In that case, the law presumed that what her ex-husband wanted after their divorce was incorrect.

The ruling stated: “Thus, if a person designates a spouse as a life insurance beneficiary and later gets divorced, Minnesota law provides that the beneficiary designation is automatically revoked. At least twenty-eight other states have enacted similar revocation-upon-divorce statutes.”


‘I’m reluctant to say that you are ‘in the clear,’ given previous court rulings, and statutes in some states on the revocation of named beneficiaries post-divorce.’

I’m reluctant to say that you are “in the clear,” given previous court rulings, and statutes in some states on the revocation of named beneficiaries post-divorce. In your case, it seems clearer that your ex-wife wanted you to be the beneficiary. She did, as you say, update your address. It would be hard to see a more explicit sign of her intentions than that.

“Unless the policyholder of the life-insurance plan changes the beneficiary designation officially, the people originally named will remain the beneficiaries through the life of the policy,” according to Heban, Murphree and Lewandowski, a law firm in Toledo, Ohio. “Even if the policyholder was not on speaking terms with the individual upon his or her death, that beneficiary would still receive the income.”

“In the case of someone who divorced and remarried, the policy may name the first spouse as beneficiary. If the policyholder never changed the policy to reflect the divorce and remarriage, the ex-spouse could end up with the benefit. This can cause the current spouse and any children from the second marriage to dispute the beneficiary designation on the policy,” it adds.

But much, I suspect, would depend on what state you live in, and the specifics of your case.

On a separate issue, it’s difficult to glean from your letter whether your in-laws had little funds to pay for the funeral expenses, or were mad as hell that you were listed as beneficiary and felt you should contribute, or both. On the one hand, it seems like they are not in a state of mind to be reasonable and, chances are, if you did engage it would lead to further demands and acrimony.

Perhaps you could talk to your ex-wife’s lawyer and see if there is enough money to cover the costs of her funeral and, if not, you could make a contribution. But given the alleged harassing phone calls, their anger and grief, and their antipathy toward you, you would need to have all correspondence go through the attorney and refrain from any direct communication.

There is no excuse for their taking their grief out on you. Still, spare a thought for her family. If you are fed up, imagine how they feel.

The Moneyist: My boyfriend talked me into depositing my paychecks into his bank account, and paying for a car in his name. What can I do?

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook
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By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.





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These money and investing tips can help you when inflation is burning a hole in your wallet

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Don’t miss these top money and investing features:

These money and investing stories, popular with MarketWatch readers over the past week, focus on helping you make sense of the recent spike in U.S. inflation. Understand how rising prices can affect your investment portfolio, and taking appropriate steps now to respond, can prevent unpleasant surprises later.



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No, you’re not crazy. Yes, CDC mask guidelines are confusing — should you stop wearing a mask in public or not?

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Wear a mask. Don’t wear a mask. Make one. Buy one. Wear it outdoors. Wear it indoors.

Confused? You’re not alone.

So what’s the deal with the CDC’s new guidance? “Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

Vaccines have helped to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and this appears to be a natural next step for Americans tired of masking up. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Walensky said.

We are still far, far away from normal. You can take off your mask “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” the CDC says. You still need a mask on buses and trains, in museums and most stores, possibly at your place of work, but not inside restaurants, except when you’re going to the rest room.

How do you know a maskless person is vaccinated? It’s an honors system. The CDC guidance gives less reason for people to abide by that old American Express slogan: “Don’t leave home without it.” People are leaving home without their masks, even in states that still require everyone — vaccinated or not — to wear them in outdoor public spaces, including on the streets of New York.

Many people are fed up, it seems. Little wonder: The CDC’s announcement took many health professionals by surprise: According to a New York Times survey, 29% of epidemiologists surveyed thought people would be wearing masks in public spaces for at least aanother year, while 26% said they believed people would do so for another year, and 26% said they thought mask wearing would continue in some form from now on.


‘You still need a mask on buses and trains, in museums and most stores, possibly at your place of work, but not inside restaurants, except when you’re going to the rest room.’

The change in CDC mask guidelines comes just over a year since the CDC said everyone should wear masks. In April 2020, the Trump administration and the CDC reversed their policies on face masks, and said all Americans should wear cloth face coverings and not — as officials previously said — just medical workers. Trump cited “recent studies,” while the CDC cited “new evidence.”

Fast-forward to Thursday. “I think it’s a great milestone, a great day. It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly,” a maskless President Joe Biden declared in the White House Rose Garden declared, citing the vaccines from Johnson & Johnson
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Pfizer-BioNTech
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and Moderna
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.

“It’s going to take a little more time for everyone who wants to get vaccinated to get their shots. So all of us, let’s be patient with one another,” the president said.

Forgive the public for having mask rules fatigue. We’ve been on quite a journey. Studies earlier in the pandemic suggested that adopting the practice of mask wearing, one that was already accepted in many Asian cultures, would have saved tens of thousands of lives. Many Americans were understandably frustrated, but also eager to do anything they could to stop the virus.

‘So what’s the deal with the CDC’s new guidance?’


MarketWatch illustration

Flashback: Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a briefing on Jan. 30 last year, “The virus is not spreading in the general community. We don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness. And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.”

Three months later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered all New Yorkers to cover their faces in public when they can’t maintain a proper social distance. “You’re walking down the street alone? Great! You’re now at an intersection and there are people at the intersection, and you’re going to be in proximity to other people? Put the mask on.”


‘These are just guidelines from the CDC. It’s up to the states to decide what to do next. New Jersey and New York still maintain their mask guidelines in public spaces.’

The CDC’s latest mask announcement are just guidelines. It’s up to the states to decide what to do next. And that’s a whole other story. New Jersey and New York still maintain their mask guidelines when in public spaces. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, is examining the guidelines, a spokeswoman for his office said in a statement. Murphy, like many governors, wears a mask in his Twitter profile. Perhaps that tells us all we need to know.

Roughly half of U.S. states have some mask mandate. Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Texas, among others, had already removed their statewide mask mandates in public spaces and/or had not instituted one. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said Thursday he would grant clemency to gym owners who broke the mask mandate.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, officially ended his state’s face-mask mandate in March, and allowed businesses to reopen, despite opposition from rival lawmakers and health professionals at the time. Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, described the move as “extraordinarily dangerous” and said it “will kill Texans.”

Cuomo, meanwhile, perhaps still reeling from this time last year when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., was definitive in maintaining current policy. Keep your masks on. “In New York, we have always relied on the facts and the science to guide us throughout the worst of this pandemic and in our successful reopening,” he said in a statement.


‘People take off their masks to make phone calls on the street in states where there is a mandate to wear them in public places, and they take them off while they are sitting outdoors eating.’

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said his state will follow the CDC guidelines. “Later today, we’ll be updating Vermont’s mask mandate following the CDC’s updated guidance, announced yesterday,” he tweeted Friday. “This will mean those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks — indoors or outdoors — nor do they need to be concerned with physical distancing.”

In Nevada, Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, said the state updated its own policies on mask wearing to follow the CDC’s guidelines with immediate effect. Nevada Health Response added: “COVID-19 is still very much a threat in our State and many Nevadans may choose to continue using masks based on their and their families’ personal health concerns. Others should respect this choice.”

That statement, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the tension, fear and frustration not only with state laws and changing guidance, but with each other. People take off their masks to make phone calls on the street in states where there is a mandate to wear them in public places, and they take them off while they are sitting outdoors eating. Most people are doing the best they can.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said people should still wear masks in public spaces for now, but likely not after June 15 when the state fully reopens. “Only in those massively large settings where people around the world, not just around the country, are convening and where people are mixing in real dense spaces,” Newsom told KTTV.

“Otherwise we’ll make guidance, recommendations, but no mandates and no restrictions in businesses large and small.” Is that all crystal clear? I’ll leave that for you to decide.





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