For Millions of Jobless, Christmas Is a Season to Endure, Not Celebrate
Nicole Craig, an unemployed mother of two from Pittsburgh, has no Christmas presents for her two children, and the ham she bought with grocery stamps is far less than the usual Christmas dinner. Months behind her rent and utility bills, she struggled to afford formula and diapers. But there was one thing she couldn’t give up: a small Christmas tree and the ingredients that go with it.
Ms. Craig spent the last $ 7 in her bank account on tinsel, a symbol of the light in the darkness of 2020. “It’s my baby’s first Christmas,” she said. “I wanted him to see a Christmas tree.”
Although Ms. Craig, 42, lost her job advising youth at risk through no fault of her own, she can’t help but blame herself for seeing Christmas decorations and other memories of a holiday she can barely celebrate. “I don’t even want to think about it because I feel so bad for my kids,” she said. “I feel like a failure.”
For Ms. Craig and millions of other Americans who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic, this is a holiday season that is more for the weather than the fun. With unemployment benefits running out and an unforgiving job market few berths, many will remember this Christmas because it made painful sacrifices rather than the joy of exchanging gifts and enjoying festive meals with family.
The arrival of vaccines and the approval of a new federal aid package give hope, but they come too late to save this year’s celebration – especially with the prospect that this winter could bring the darkest days of the pandemic.
“I’m really scared of what’s going to happen,” said Ms. Craig.
The long delay in reaching a congressional agreement on an aid bill has resulted in fewer gifts under the tree, despite the pandemic separating families and shifting this year’s holiday cheer to video chat gatherings.
For many families, the $ 600 per person stimulus payments are already included in the bill approved on Monday for rent and other necessities. President Trump’s call for Congress to increase the amount to $ 2,000 per person could provide additional cushion – or torpedo the legislation altogether.
Meanwhile, unemployed Americans like Monica Scott of Lakeland, Florida, seek solace in the past.
“All I can talk about this year is memories,” said Ms. Scott, who is five months pregnant and had to quit her job at an Amazon warehouse because of the risk of miscarriage loading and unloading heavy packages. “Last year has been great – so many toys, clothes and shoes.”
Ms. Scott, 34, wants to have a Christmas dinner with her three boys – 14, 10, and 8 years old – but food will be limited because she relies on food stamps and has no kitchen. Ms. Scott lives in a motel after being evicted from her apartment last spring, but hopes to find a permanent home soon.
“It’s just a room with a bathroom,” she said. “The rent is due and I don’t know where it will come from. I could move in with my sister, but she has her children and it’s just not convenient. “
Jessica Hudson, a full-time student and mother of two in Millbrae, Calif., Does what she can to keep her family happy for Christmas. Ms. Hudson, who receives child support from her ex-husband, and her non-work partner bought stockings and candy at the dollar store. And they have spent the past few weeks scouring the local streets for the most beautifully decorated houses so they can take the kids on a ride to see them on Christmas Day.
As for dinner, “we usually make ribs, martinelli’s cider, some desserts,” said Ms. Hudson. “We won’t be able to do any of that this year.”
Apr. 23, 2020, 5:24 p.m. ET
Ms. Hudson’s 13-year-old Marleigh had only one thing on her Christmas list this year: a family camping trip to Yosemite National Park. Mrs. Hudson tried to find a way to say no. “She basically gets an iou for Christmas, when the pandemic is over and we can travel, we’ll take her,” Ms. Hudson said. “But the truth is, we can’t afford to do that right now.”
Jamie Snyder, who lives in Grayling, Michigan, bought her kids big tickets last Christmas: a new TV for her daughter, an Xbox for her son. But since her husband was laid off in June and then took a job with a $ 20,000 cut in wages, money has been tight.
To buy simple gifts for the children – a video game, a new sweater – Ms. Snyder used the money she would have spent on the electricity bill. When this payment falls due on January 10, she fears that her electricity will be cut off.
“We just want you to have something to look forward to,” said Ms. Snyder. For Christmas dinner, she will rely on a program at her daughter’s school to provide meals to families in need.
There’s a touch of Dickens to this year’s celebrations, except that the relevant story isn’t “A Christmas Carol” but “A Tale of Two Cities”. Even as stock markets hit record highs and waiting lists for luxury goods like Peloton exercise bikes increased, around 20 million workers were receiving unemployment benefits through state or federal programs at the end of November, according to the Department of Labor.
Some of the luckier ones try to give something back. Sterling Beau Schecter, a machinery and equipment appraiser, received a 20 percent raise in October and, as a result, increased his charitable giving to a local church.
“I am very grateful for the blessing of having a job and I try not to take it for granted,” he said. Mr. Schecter, 26, lives in Chicago but was able to return to Fort Worth for Christmas.
In a normal year, around 30 members of his extended family gather on Christmas Eve. This year, only his immediate family will be spending time together to keep pandemic guidelines.
Nevertheless, his mother is planning a Christmas party – with turkey, mashed potatoes and bread rolls. Mr Schecter and friends are planning to rent a local movie theater this week for a private screening of a Christmas movie.
Workers like Mr Schechter have generally been more resilient in the pandemic recession than workers in the service sector with fewer skills and lower wages. Although the unemployment rate fell from 14.7 percent in April to 6.7 percent in November, the pace of employment has slowed. At the same time, the new state unemployment benefit entitlements are close to a million a week.
Many of the unemployed come from industries such as hospitality, travel, food service and entertainment, which were still suffering from the first strike of the pandemic back in the spring when a new round of bans and restrictions hit in the fall.
At 10.2 million, employment in the food service sector is down more than two million from February and fell again in November after recovering in the spring and summer.
Few experts expect these sectors of the economy to rebound until mass vaccination kicks in and consumers are comfortable eating indoors – or even allowed to in places like New York and California. Similarly, stadiums, airports, and amusement parks will most likely rest until temperatures rise and the virus is repulsed by vaccination-induced herd immunity at some point in the next year.
One of those waiting is Tresa Watson, 44, who served four and a half years as a server and host in the premium suite of the Fiserv Forum, home of the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks. By the time she was fired in March, she was making $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 annually, enough to buy a car seat for $ 199 for her new grandson, Khalil, last year.
This year she brings him a toy laptop, cuddly toys and a broom and dustpan set from Melissa & Doug, the children’s toy maker. Most of all, though, she focuses on vacation experiences that don’t come with a price tag, like spending time with Khalil, and is grateful that she can pay the rent and keep the lights on for now.
“I will give the gift of love and hope and prayer,” she said. “And to remain hopeful that this too will pass.”