/Two kids, no support system and $167 in unemployment benefits: One single mom’s plight in the age of Covid-19

Two kids, no support system and $167 in unemployment benefits: One single mom’s plight in the age of Covid-19

Jennifer Haynes, a self-employed chef and single mother living in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is struggling to make ends meet after unemployment benefits abruptly stopped in July without explanation. Meanwhile, the 42-year-old is the sole provider for twin boys, one of whom has special needs.
Jennifer Haynes

Jennifer Haynes didn’t just fall through cracks in the country’s social safety net.

In her case, it’s been more like a chasm.

Haynes, 42, a self-employed chef and single mother living in Rancho Cucamonga, California, had been getting $ 167 a week in unemployment benefits and an extra $ 600 a week from the federal government. The aid was enough to catch up on a few months of bills and feed her 11-year-old twin boys.

But then the California unemployment office mysteriously stopped sending benefits in July, even though Haynes’ catering business remained at a standstill. Her applications for federal assistance from a widely used small-business loan and grant program were denied.

Meanwhile, Haynes, a victim of domestic violence, is in the middle of a divorce. She hasn’t had financial support from her husband since January.

Haynes can’t find another job since she must stay home with her sons, whose schooling is virtual this semester. One of her boys is autistic and requires extra attention.

Without income or savings, Haynes has fallen behind again. She’s at risk of losing her car and worries about being able to put food on the table. And she can’t afford childcare.

“I have a special-needs kid and I’m by myself now,” Haynes said. “My parents passed on, and I don’t have any other real support around me.

“What do we, who sincerely don’t have another option, do?” she added. “This pandemic has made it very hard to survive.”

‘Almost no escape’

No group has been spared the economic destruction of the coronavirus pandemic, which pushed unemployment to levels unseen since the Great Depression.

But it’s proven especially devastating for single mothers.

“It’s often lower-earning single moms where the effects are most severe,” said Matthias Doepke, an economist and professor at Northwestern University. “There’s almost no escape.

“There’s no second earner to fall back on.”

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“The constraints are very binding,” he added. “If you can’t work from home and you have a kid at home, you have to live on unemployment.”

Women have been hit harder than men by the recent unemployment spell. That makes the current downturn unique in comparison to others, such as the Great Recession.

In a typical downturn â€” or “man-cession” â€” layoffs are usually concentrated in male-heavy sectors like manufacturing and construction, while there’s more stability in other sectors like health care and education that employ a greater proportion of women, Doepke said.

However, service sectors like restaurants and tourism that employ a large share of women have seen some of the biggest job losses in the Covid-19 economy.

As a result, unemployment skyrocketed more for women in April compared with men â€” to 15.5% versus 13%, respectively. (The month prior, unemployment was 4% for both groups.)

Meanwhile, closures of schools and daycare centers have increased parents’ childcare needs.

To that point, 32% of adult workers in the U.S. have a child under 14 years old â€” equating to 50 million Americans who must consider childcare obligations when returning to work, according to a paper authored by University of Chicago and Northwestern University economists in April.

And the burden of childcare largely falls on the shoulders of women.

This is true even in married households. Mothers provide more than 60% of total childcare, said Doepke and economists from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Mannheim in a recent paper.

But the challenge can be especially acute for single mothers â€” a family structure that’s much more prevalent than single fathers.

Around 21% of children lived with a single mother in 2017, more than four times the share that lived with a lone father, according to Melissa Kearney, a professor and economist at the University of Maryland.

Women are also less likely to have jobs with a high ability to work from home, according to researchers. The relative lack of telecommuting ability exacerbates the childcare conundrum for single mothers like Haynes.

“It’s literally impossible for some of these parents to work due to childcare,” Doepke said. “It makes it really tough to buffer the shock.”

Unemployment mystery 

Collecting unemployment was Haynes’ one “saving grace” after business dried up in March, she said.

She collected $ 167 a week (before tax) through a new federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for self-employed, gig and other workers ineligible for state jobless benefits. She also got a $ 600 weekly supplement enacted by the CARES Act coronavirus relief law in late March.

However, her payments didn’t arrive until the end of May, more than two months into her unemployment. In the interim, she couldn’t afford her roughly $ 2,650 monthly rent or other living expenses.

Just as soon as Haynes was able to catch up on old bills, after receiving back pay from the state, her benefits stopped abruptly after July 19 without explanation, records show.

Jennifer Haynes
Jennifer Haynes

A spokesperson for California’s Employment Development Department declined to divulge details about Haynes’ file due to confidentiality laws.

“The agency added Jennifer [Haynes] to a claimant referral list that has been sent to our Unemployment Insurance branch, which handles benefits claims processing,” the spokesperson said.

“Please know that EDD staff care deeply about the livelihoods of our neighbors and communities throughout the state and continue to work around the clock to ensure every Californian eligible for benefits receives that vital financial support,” the spokesperson added.

In the meantime, Haynes is struggling to make ends meet.

The servicer of her $ 581 monthly car payment isn’t letting her to defer additional installments. A new federal eviction ban running through the end of the year as well as a statewide ban issued Monday by Governor Gavin Newsom, which runs through February 2021, should at least provide a temporary reprieve. But those bans don’t forgive missed payments, which will eventually come due.

Haynes has looked for, but struggled to find, cheaper apartments in her neighborhood.

“I plan to stay where I am and catch up in the time that the ban has allowed,” Haynes said. “My apartment [sic] is willing to work with me as long as I can do that.”

$ 300 unemployment boost

Even if Haynes were getting unemployment benefits, she’d receive just $ 167 a week â€” the minimum payment in California through the PUA program. The $ 600 federal subsidy lapsed in late July.

California has gotten federal approval to offer an extra $ 300 a week through a Lost Wages Assistance program that the Trump administration created early last month.

Thus far, the state has received just three weeks of funding, amounting to a total $ 900 per eligible worker. Those payments will start Sep. 7, but it may take a several weeks to arrive for some workers, according to the state unemployment agency.

Haynes applied months ago for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, as well as a federal grant through that loan program that Congress authorized in the CARES Act. She was denied a loan and grant for her business.

The Small Business Administration had approved $ 188 billion in disaster loans to around 3.6 million business owners as of Aug. 24. The agency issued grants of up to $ 10,000, which don’t have to be repaid, to about 5.8 million businesses. The grant program’s $ 20 billion of funding ran out in July.

Absent business capital or income, Haynes can’t afford catering supplies or the fees that commercial kitchens â€” at least, the ones that are open â€” charge for use of their facilities. In the past, she’d often be able to take her boys with her to work. Now, though, juggling childcare is a challenge.

“I’ve tried to see what it would look like even just running errands but I can only be gone for half a [school] period, because at some point during the period he needs me,” Haynes said of her son with special needs.

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