“Some pain” is on the horizon for Americans, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned last week of the central bank’s effort to fight inflation.
Already, more people are struggling to cover their usual expenses, and more lower-income folks are falling behind on their credit card bills.
Meanwhile, many economists are projecting a recession will hit by the end of next year, if it isn’t here already.
But don’t look to the federal government for a helping hand this time. There’s little appetite in Congress to provide support to those struggling if the economy heads further south, experts say.
The US economy is showing growing signs of trouble, even as the job market continues to be strong and household finances remain fairly solid overall.
Some 40% of Americans lived in households that had difficulty paying their usual household expenses in the last seven days, according to the most recent US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, which took place in late July and early August. That’s up from 31% at the beginning of the year.
The situation is even worse for parents. Nearly half of adults with minor children at home found it somewhat or very difficult to cover the usual expenses in the last week, up from less than 38% at the start of the year, the survey found.
Part of the increase in financial stress stems from the expiration of the expanded child tax credit, said Claire Zippel, senior research analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Congress had beefed up the tax credit and paid it to parents in monthly installments in the second half of last year as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
“While families were receiving those payments, the vast majority were putting them towards just basic expenses,” Zippel said. “And so to not have that cushion anymore, combined with prices going up, is certainly putting many families in a pinch.”
Likewise, hunger is on the rise. Some 11.5% of adults live in households where there was sometimes or often not enough to eat in the past week, up from 10% at the start of the year, according to the Census survey. Among families with children, the figure is 15.3%, up from 12.5%.
Food prices continue to climb, even as gas prices have retreated for weeks. Grocery prices soared 13.1% over the past year, with nearly every item rising in cost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the largest annual increase since the year ending in March 1979.
That heightened food insecurity also means that more people are turning to food banks for help. Some 65% of food banks reported an increase in demand for emergency food assistance in June, compared with the previous month, according to the latest survey by Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks and more than 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programs.
“Inflation is devastating to the budgets of families, seniors and people just barely getting by, driving more and more of them to food banks and food pantries,” said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating officer of Feeding America.
Inflation is also helping spur increases in credit card borrowing, as people cope with rising prices for goods and services, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s most recent quarterly report on debt and credit.
The flood of federal assistance earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic enabled many Americans to stay current on their credit cards. But now, delinquencies are rising among low-income borrowers, with rates approaching pre-pandemic levels, New York Fed researchers found.
“With the supportive policies of the pandemic mostly in the past, there are pockets of borrowers who are beginning to show some distress on their debt,” the researchers said.
Although the signals have been mixed, economists don’t have a particularly rosy outlook. Some 72% of economists polled recently by the National Association for Business Economics say that the next recession will start by the middle of next year, if it hasn’t already begun. They generally don’t feel that the Federal Reserve can reduce inflation without sparking a recession.
Congress likely to sit on the sidelines
Typically, when recessions hit, Congress steps in to help those who are struggling.
In every recession since at least the 1970s, Congress has increased unemployment benefits by providing a weekly federal supplement, extending the duration of benefits beyond the typical 26 weeks, or both, according to Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
During the Great Recession, lawmakers extended unemployment benefits to as long as 99 weeks – a measure that was in place from July 2008 to the end of 2013. And it provided a $25 supplement for most of 2009 and 2010. In addition, Congress increased food stamp benefits in 2009 and continued the boost through 2013.
And in early 2008, Congress passed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, providing $600 tax rebate checks to most individual taxpayers and $1,200 to married couples for those earning below a certain income cap. Then-President George W. Bush called it a “booster shot” for the American economy.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused the economy to crater in the spring of 2020. A record 20.5 million jobs were lost that April alone – and it took until this July to regain all those positions.
The downturn prompted an unprecedented amount of aid from Congress, including three rounds of stimulus checks, historic unemployment benefits enhancements, more generous food stamps and beefed up child tax credits, among other assistance.
Federal relief measures, particularly unemployment insurance, help both struggling Americans and the overall economy because people typically spend the funds on essentials, which benefits businesses and prevents more layoffs.
“We need fiscal support for the economy, aka money flowing into workers’ pockets, so that we can stop that recessionary cycle in its tracks and have workers continue to buy things,” said Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
But nearly all of that federal aid has dried up. In its place, several states have used their surplus revenue to issue rebate checks or temporarily suspend gas taxes to help their residents combat inflation.
The massive federal response during the early years of the pandemic drained many lawmakers’ will to do more for those in need, even as the economic storm clouds gather once again.
Over the past year, Democrats failed to round up enough votes in the Senate to extend pandemic assistance programs, such as the enhanced child tax credit, or enact new measures, such as help paying for child care. They were stymied by Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, who worried the aid would only further hurt the economy by increasing inflation.
In the end, Democrats were only able to continue the expanded Affordable Care Act subsidies for another three years as part of its budget reconciliation bill that passed in August.
Whether the job market stumbles and the economy weakens further remains to be seen. But experts aren’t hopeful that will spur the federal cavalry to come to the rescue if it does occur.
“Should we actually go into a recession, policymakers don’t have the appetite to do the standard things we’ve done in the past,” Stone said. “There’s not much expectation that Congress will respond.”