Among the social faux paus I’ve committed in the past decade —ranging from walking into my lobby barefoot to letting the doors of an empty elevator close on my coworkers to admiring apartments through their open windows on the Upper West Side—the most nerve-racking has undoubtedly been looking at the receipts left behind in ATMs. Every time I’ve done it has been remarkable. As a college student, I’d expect to see what I would have in my own bank account: a few hundred dollars at best, a negative balance at worst. I was shocked when I saw that another student had a little over $10,000 in his checking account. I didn’t know another 19-year-old who had that much money. As an adult, I am familiar with the gut punch of realizing, all at once, that the challenges I faced were not necessarily universal.
Each of these moments means something new against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t imagine dashing into my lobby without shoes. The shutting door of a half-empty elevator is now good etiquette. We are invited into one another’s homes via Zoom. And stimulus payments have peeled open all of our wallets—and here we are, out in the open, barely decent.
Stuck between financial and moral obligations and self preservation, a teacher in Florida wrote his obituary. Many neighborhood businesses have been permanently shuttered, while large corporations have been bailed out, once again. The staggered stimulus payments that Americans were given to keep us afloat, during a pandemic that promises to barrel through the winter and into 2021, reveal a particular sourness in our national ethos. When contextualized by the amount of stimulus relief citizens of countries like New Zealand received and the very little so many of us are surviving on in the first place, $1200 is particularly ingracious.
Here, three stories about stimulus checks that were not enough to numb the pain of the pandemic.
A nurse and mother of 3 on stretching a stimulus check while 37 weeks pregnant
Moriah Gaddis Thompson, General Surgery Clinic Nurse in Camp Lejeune, Jacksonville, NC.
I was pregnant with my third child when I began working as a general surgery clinic nurse. I’d planned to work until I went into labor because I didn’t have much leave time saved, but I was sent home by my midwife to quarantine at 37 weeks to try to limit my risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
In my position, I was not on the frontline for care of sick patients, so my risk of being exposed to the virus was much smaller than that of a nurse working in the E.R. or family medicine, for example, where symptomatic patients visit. I was very anxious, nonetheless. I felt like my hospital was slow to respond to the pandemic in a preventative manner. We did not begin taking temperatures, social distancing, or requiring face masks until April. There was such limited information about how the virus affects pregnant women. It consumed me a bit. What if my husband was positive and could not be with me during the birth of our child? What if I was positive and separated from my newborn for two weeks? What if our bonding was compromised? What if I couldn’t breastfeed?”
I asked myself these questions every day that I was still at work. I was torn, though. I felt somewhat obligated to work since my department was lower risk, and there were so many people unable to work. I felt grateful to have the job that I have, but I also struggled with fear and anxiety.
When I returned after my son was born, it was so hard. Money was definitely a motivating factor. I have private student loans that are not on hold right now. I have three kids at home—three college funds I am trying to grow. I have car notes and bills. So, I “pulled up my big girl panties” and headed back in, which was also complicated.
According to everything I’ve heard, my area was not hit as hard as other places, but our army base is not reporting numbers to the local health department for “national security” purposes, so I never really felt like I knew how many cases there actually were. Because of that, in part, I knew I did not want my two school-aged children to return to school, and I’ve signed them up for virtual learning at home.
The stimulus check was a surprise to me. I’d heard about it but I was mostly consumed with baby prep and COVID fears. My company is excluded from the CARES Act and did not compensate me for the three weeks that I was at home prior to my maternity leave, so when I saw the amount pending I was immediately grateful. Because I’m in charge of keeping up with our finances, I also knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I was around 34 or 35 weeks pregnant, and we had been working on cutting down our debt as we got closer to my maternity leave. We took the better portion and paid down my debt, and with the rest bought a crib and mattress, and sushi for dinner!
A small business owner on closing shop and navigating new expenses
Eric Perez, Barber in Oneonta, NY
When the pandemic started, my barbershop was shut down because we were deemed non-essential. It was tough because my income is directly combined with my effort and time at work. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. Within a week, I’d gotten myself a job working overnights at Walmart because, at that point, I didn’t qualify for unemployment because I was self-employed. Then the CARES Act was passed, and I would’ve qualified for unemployment had I stayed at home—but since I went out and found a job, I didn’t. I took solace in the fact that I was still providing for my family, even though it felt like I would’ve been rewarded had I stayed home.
My homelife with my children changed. We were being really careful because my youngest is high risk. He has asthma and I was scared I would bring the virus home to him. My wife was working from home, but it seemed like more was expected from her being home than being in the office. The stress was evident even in small conversations.
I’ve talked to a lot of people at the barbershop and I’ve found that so many people rely on social media for their news. The area I live in has a high population of people who still wave Confederate flags and voted for Trump. For the most part, they are people I can try to have conversations with but I always have the feeling that we are at odds or there is tension there. It’s evident that the information they’re giving me is from social media and our president is guiding their thought processes.
At the height of the pandemic, I still was concerned about going back to the barbershop, but I did it for the money. I blew through my savings because as gracious as Walmart was in employing local people, even though they didn’t need us, there were unforeseen bills that came up. We had to pay more for food and electricity, because we were home more. We paid for technology to appropriately teach my children, who were learning virtually. But we also paid our rent every month on time, and it’s something we can look back on and say we did.
We spent our stimulus check on getting ahead on our bills a bit. It gave us some breathing room. It allowed me to quit my job at Walmart with enough time to prepare to go back to the barbershop and minimize my exposure for my family, but I would’ve just had to work two more weeks to earn what I received from the government.
A New York native on moving home and saving for a rainy day
Ghislaine Leon, Digital Media Manager in Harlem, NY
By the time the pandemic hit, I was looking for a new job. I was exhausted from paying New York City rent prices and not getting the bare minimum from landlords, like hot water in my kitchen. I had the option of waiting out the pandemic alone in my Bronx apartment or saving half of my monthly costs by going back home to Harlem. If the world was going to end, I figured I might as well be with my family.
I returned to a neighborhood that has two strong communities. There are families who’ve been on the block for more than 30 years, who think of our area as “the hood,” and there are neighbors who gentrified Broadway and think of our area as a “Henry Hudson dream.” The pandemic pushed true New Yorkers to be more of ourselves and pushed some of our visitors out. For the first time in my life, Broadway became like what my uncle described in the ’80s: a street pharmacy.
One night I stepped out at 10:30 p.m., and I had not even walked a full block before someone walked by me saying, “I got that gas, that gas.”
For most of my life, I’ve been offered weed on the street, but this is different. The fact that people need money brought back drugs that community board members have worked to remove. I had the Citizen app and I had to delete it. The number of notifications I got about local crime reinforced the feelings I had that night.
Another night, I was waiting for pizza when a fire broke out in a building nearby. A young Dominican man intentionally lit his apartment on fire, causing the entire building to evacuate. I was heartbroken at the sight of young children leaving the scene through their fire escapes in their pajamas. Guys on the block beat the young man up before the cops arrived to arrest him.
As an Afro-Latina, this affects me personally. Black and brown communities have been hit hardest, so disparities have been in my face at all times. There’s no escaping it. At one point when NYC COVID-19 cases were high, I saw an ambulance every other night in my neighborhood. It was usually an elderly person.
I haven’t spent my stimulus check yet. It’s sitting in my savings account until I invest it. I want to double it. The stimulus check was enough to cover half of one month’s cost of living. It was definitely not enough to live on through September and it’s shaken me up. I have to remember to fend for myself and make money work for me.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi.