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America's unemployed face a bleak Christmas

Americans still waiting for COVID relief
Americans still waiting for help as COVID relief bill hangs in balance 06:52

Last Christmas, Shanita Matthews cooked up a feast for her family of three: Roast chicken, barbecue spareribs, spinach and  macaroni and cheese.

This year? It's tuna fish and crackers, among the few items Matthews can afford at the supermarket.

"We're not really doing Christmas — I guess you can say it that way," said Matthews, who lives in Suwanee, Georgia. "We are struggling. We are tired, and all I have is my faith."

Matthews has been jobless since the viral pandemic ripped through the U.S. economy in March, triggering a devastating recession and widespread unemployment. Now, many months later, she and her family face a holiday season they hardly could have foreseen a year ago: Too little money to buy gifts, cook large festive meals or pay all their bills.

Nearly 8 million people have sunk into poverty since June after having spent $1,200 checks that the government gave most Americans in the spring and a $600-a-week supplemental jobless benefit expired in July, according to research by Bruce Meyer at the University of Chicago and two other colleagues. Employers are still laying off workers, and finding a job is getting even harder: Hiring in November slowed for a fifth straight month, with U.S. employers adding the fewest jobs since April.

A Nation In Need: A Stimulus Checklist 38:29

Some relief may — potentially — be on the way. This week, Congress approved a $900 billion pandemic rescue package that includes a $300-a-week unemployment benefit, cash payments of up to $600 for most individuals and a renewal of extended jobless aid programs that are about to expire. The bill has been flown to President Donald Trump's winter residence at Mar-a-Lago. However, it's uncertain whether he will sign the federal aid: On Tuesday, Mr. Trump attacked the deal as inadequate and called for larger payouts to people.

Waiting for a stimulus

Carson Noel, a technician and director for live events, has been without work since March and without income since mid-October, when his jobless benefits ran out. The 51-year-old lost his apartment in Tempe, Arizona shortly before Thanksgiving. He's now staying with his sister in Tucson, Arizona, he told CBS MoneyWatch recently.

"A lot of my family has tried to help out as best they could," Noel said. "At least I don't have to try to take care of other people at the same time." 

Noel said he applies for about 10 jobs a day, and estimates he's sent out 500 resumes since the pandemic began, for work including event management, electrical work or construction. He's received just two interviews, he said. With live events not expected to return until the middle of next year even in a best-case scenario, Noel has been agitating for Congress to extend unemployment assistance. 

"It needs to happen now. The whole Pandemic Unemployment Assistance extension, the whole $600," he said. "$300 is gonna help, what they're talking about right now. $600 will really help. This isn't going away anytime soon."

Why Trump waited until after relief bill was passed to push for $2,000 checks 09:18

"Food, water, heat"

Help, in the meantime, can't come soon enough for Matthews. With her bank balance now negative, she worries that her account could be closed if she doesn't receive financial aid soon.

Matthews, 41, has been struggling with her finances since she had to shut down her wedding business in March, when ceremonies were canceled and any need for the centerpieces and flower arrangements she made suddenly evaporated. Matthews was denied unemployment aid by Georgia's labor department. She doesn't understand why and is appealing the decision. But the process is so slow that she's waited months just to get a hearing.

Virus Outbreak-Bleak Christmas for Jobless
Shanita Matthews plays with her 6-year-old daughter Breilin at her home in Suwanee, Georgia, on Dec. 23, 2020. Matthews, who had to close her wedding business because of the coronavirus outbreak, is scaling back her Christmas plans. John Bazemore / AP

Despite being a registered nurse, Matthews has been unable to land a job. She can work only late hours because she often needs to help her 6-year-old daughter, who must do virtual learning at home when virus cases spike at her school.

Matthews' car was repossessed after she couldn't keep up with payments. Most of what her husband earns goes to a $1,600 mortgage on their home. That leaves them with about $200 a month for groceries, utilities and a $50 internet bill — a necessity for her daughter's schoolwork.

Matthews hopes that a relative can step in and buy a Christmas gift for her daughter.

"We want to be able to have food, water, heat," she said. "Those are the things that we care about."

Charities overwhelmed as poverty surges

Charities say they have been overwhelmed with requests for help, a sign of the deep financial distress in which many Americans find themselves. The United Way expects the number of calls to the 211 hotline it funds to double from last year to 20 million calls, mostly from people needing help paying rent or electricity bills. Feeding America says many of the people showing up at food banks are first timers.

Out of desperation, Sheyontay Molton turned to Twitter for help after a series of events left her with no money to buy gifts for her four children.

Her children's father lost his job this year. Molton, who is 28 and lives in San Antonio, Texas, had to temporarily stop working as a delivery driver for DoorDash after falling debris from a truck severely damaged her car in October. She used part of her rent money to repair it, leaving her behind on bills.

Millions of Americans facing food insecurity in 2020 04:31

Having noticed on Twitter that social media influencers and celebrities were providing cash to some needy people, Molton created an account and tweeted about her situation. Someone sent her $200 through an app — money that she plans to use for groceries. Another couple on Twitter asked her to create an Amazon Wishlist and then bought her kids a doll, cars and other toys for Christmas.

Without the donations, Molton had planned to tell her young kids that Santa Claus couldn't come because he was taking extra coronavirus precautions.

"Silly, I know," she said, But "it would have bought me more time."

Holiday shopping slumps

The struggles of low-income workers and the unemployed are contributing to a weak holiday shopping season that will likely drag on the overall economy. Retail sales fell 1.1% in November, a month that is typically strong as gift-buying gets under way. Some economists expect retail sales to decline again this month, particularly as governments impose more business restrictions and rising coronavirus cases keep consumers away from stores and restaurants.

A scaled-back holiday is what Summer Kluytman has been envisioning. She had to tell her two teenage sons not to expect the kinds of Christmas gifts they've typical received in the past, like the $400 Oculus virtual reality headset that was under the tree last year.

Having lost two art teaching jobs, Kluytman had to go on food stamps to help . The salary of her husband, who works for a cable company, goes toward the rent for their home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kluytman is spending $100 on each son this Christmas for hoodies and other clothing, down from the $500 she spent on each last year. She plans to hold movie nights, where they'll gather in the living room to catch a flick.

"I think that they're cool with us spending time together as opposed to a bunch of stuff under the tree," she said. "But it does break my heart a little bit."

CBS News' Irina Ivanova contributed reporting.

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