Its effect on one deeply grateful recipient. How similar is my story to yours?
“A deposit of $2,032.00 has been made to your EDD Debit Card.”
I stared at the text for a long moment. I blinked twice to make sure I read the number correctly. I was afraid to click away from the text in case the figure should disappear.
Fortunately, it remained, even after I went back to sleep and awoke again a few hours later to start my day. It remained when I set up automatic transfers between my unemployment account and my regular bank. It remained when I purchased groceries and for the first time and did not have to recalculate every item I placed in my cart. It remained when I realized I had the money to move out of my then overcrowded, illegally-operated, bedbug-infested housing.
April 2020 was the first time in literal years I had a comma in my bank account. And despite the fear and uncertainty in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, for once, I had some hope and security and most importantly: some dignity.
Andrew Yang openly platformed on the benefits of universal basic income. Much like the minimum wage increases, people have blindly contested implementing a program without understanding its impact on those who need it most.
The CARES Act inadvertently provided a test run of that. The stimulus program did the single most effective thing for impoverished people: provided a modest but immediate and consistent cash relief.
I can’t answer for every person who collected those benefits and contest their right to do as they wished with the funds available to them, but I can share how I managed the money from May until September when it ran out and its effect on my life.
What I did with the money
Excluding regular expenses like groceries, subscriptions, and my cell phone bill, here are some of the things I spent money on that I would not have been able to do without the CARES Act benefits:
- Paid rent without worry. I put down the first month’s rent and a deposit on a furnished bedroom in a townhouse. The rent is well below market rates and a prime location in Los Angeles, especially for not having a car. Despite a rent moratorium, I paid rent dutifully through September. There is a temporary eviction protection plan in place; however, anyone who gets behind on rent is subject to eviction on March 1, 2021.
- Rented a P.O. Box. With the USPS crisis going on, I could not have picked a better time for it.
- Upgraded my at-home workstation. I bought a budget monitor, printer, and scanner. This not only improved my writing productivity but also enabled me to work more efficiently at home during a brief period of re-employment as the work relied heavily on spreadsheets and project management software.
What I did not do with the money
Some things I considered purchasing but did not for one reason or another:
- Vacation. I could have swung a budget weekend camping trip but I did not want to run the risk of getting lost or hurt and contributing to an already-overwhelmed medical system dealing with the pandemic. My last vacation was in October 2017 and I did not go past Las Vegas.
- A car. Due to so many years in poverty, and despite my painstaking efforts to improve it, I still don’t have a credit score or consistent-enough income to finance and maintain a vehicle.
- Extra glasses. I’m nearsighted and require prescription lenses to drive. My last set broke beyond repair. I used my Medi-cal insurance to get a new prescription on August 21 (there was a waiting list for an appointment). As of this writing seven weeks later, the lab has not provided any updates since receiving the order on August 26. Without glasses, even grocery shopping is difficult.
- A new cell phone. I currently own a Google Pixel. As in an original Pixel 1. I had paid off the phone several months before the pandemic hit but could not afford a new device. Once lockdown began, I didn’t think it would be wise to upgrade because I would not use my phone nearly as much and for the most part, I was right. However, over the summer, my device started to give up the ghost.
What the money did and did not provide
The CARES Act stimulus provided me with peace of mind above all else. In the context of a pandemic, as a single woman with no dependents, it was easy to stay home and avoid going out unless necessary. Knowing that my basic needs were met made it easier to cope with the stress and loneliness.
When my first deposits arrived, I immediately squirreled away $1,500 of it as emergency funds, which I have now depleted after I foolishly believed that I could either find a new job, return to my old one remotely, or that Congress would get its act together and finalize a new bill. I didn’t think that all three would fail.
I was not living in the lap of luxury. I carefully counted each expense. I was, however, fed, clothed, and housed. That alone provided a foundation for me to work on other things while I looked for work and is exactly why people support a UBI program.
I did allow myself some retail indulgences like skincare and some art supplies but they kept me where I should have been: at home, away from the virus, not infecting others.
Knowing I had a foundation but not excess inspired me to do better. It made me reconsider what I was contributing to the world, how I would fit in it. It made me want to invest more in my own art and talents and want to see the end of this pandemic.
Think about your own loved ones who are out of work right now. What could they do with $1,000 a month? Could they pay their rent and eat nutritious food? Do they deserve that?
If you answered no: why?
Looking for work in a pandemic
I was laid off from my part-time, low-wage job in March, returned in May thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program, and laid off again at the end of June.
I nabbed a virtual assistant position in the last week of September only for it to be rescinded after a few days of work. Due to the above concerns with not being able to see or having a car, my options are limited but I send out resumes every day. As of October 2020, California’s unemployment rate is still in the double digits.
That two thousand dollar deposit, the original $1,200 one-time stimulus payment, and subsequent weeks of enhanced unemployment benefits changed my life for a few months. Chances are it did the same for someone — or many someones — you know personally, even if they won’t say so out loud.
Poverty is stigmatized and we are taught to blame ourselves and each other for what the wealthy and ultra-wealthy do. Remember that in August of 2020, Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet and in all of history, reached a net worth of $200 billion and has paid no tax on it.
The CARES Act was an emergency stopgap that did its job. It proved, to me, that we can come up with a UBI program. Imagine what we could do if we taxed everyone fairly, invested in our citizens directly, and guaranteed the dignity of human survival basics even without the pressure of a pandemic breathing down our necks, simply because we are all human beings and deserve it.
UBI benefits you, too
Perhaps you’re sticking your nose up at this story, pooh-poohing it for a tale of woe, insisting I’m just lazy and entitled. You’re still working or you didn’t qualify for the stimulus benefits, so why should others have them?
How many homeless people on the street do you walk past each day and ignore?
How many pleas for help do you scroll past on Facebook before liking someone’s (unsafe) vacation picture?
Is there a part of you that knows deep down, and feels guilty for being painfully aware, that those issues are never going to solve themselves and that you might be part of the problem?
What if our tax dollars went to solving those problems and could reduce or eliminate those inconveniences of yours? Are there people you care about that you know are caught in the poverty trap and you wish they could get out? What if people didn’t have to work three jobs and still get evicted or knew they could keep the kids fed every day?
The CARES Act, with its faults and expense, proved that we can instantly and efficiently solve that problem. Universal basic income can be done. And we should do it.