The clock is now ticking for millions of Americans who are set to face a series of stinging financial hardships in a matter of days, with the loss of federal protections against eviction and looming cuts to their weekly unemployment checks.
The two developments arrive at a moment of great tension in Washington, where the White House and Congress have grappled over the state of the country's pandemic aid - and confronted their limited ability to authorize more of it - even as the economy shows potential signs of strain in the face of a resurgent coronavirus.
The first blow arrived Friday, as landlords now can more easily begin removing tenants who have fallen behind on their monthly payments. The potential wave of evictions comes after the Supreme Court found the Biden administration's recent eviction moratorium to be unconstitutional, leaving the White House powerless to issue its own new directive protecting as many as 6.4 million households that are not current on their rents, according to federal survey data. Many Americans also have struggled to obtain federal rental aid from state and local programs that were allocated tens of billions of dollars in past stimulus packages.
Ten days later, some of those same families could face additional financial peril as enhanced unemployment insurance benefits are set to lapse. Congress repeatedly has extended these weekly checks, but President Joe Biden and some of his congressional allies have not sought to renew them ahead of their planned expiration Sept. 6. That could threaten 7.5 million people with the loss of much-needed income, according to a recent estimate from the Century Foundation.
The developments portend a potential shock to the economy, and they highlight the difficult political realities even in Democratic-dominated Washington. Biden has only so much power to act on his own to provide pandemic relief, and lawmakers in his party do not always see eye to eye about the need for additional economic stimulus.
Caught in the middle are millions of Americans who have relied on these generous but temporary federal programs to pay their bills since the coronavirus first swept the nation in March 2020. With fewer federal protections at their disposal, the financial hardships they face may only intensify, especially as new variants threaten to shutter businesses and schools - and overrun hospitals with patients - in communities already ravaged by the pandemic.
White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking, pointed to the Biden administration's work Friday to help Americans access aid even as other programs expire. That includes efforts to speed up the release of roughly $46 billion in rental relief money adopted in past stimulus packages, which some local governments have been slow to disburse.
"We're just going to be pressing and pressing states and localities to streamline, use simpler applications that favor self-attestation over delay, pass their own moratoriums and fund court efforts at eviction diversion," added Gene Sperling, who is overseeing White House stimulus efforts, when asked about the end of the eviction ban.
On unemployment, meanwhile, the Biden administration has sought to encourage states to address the problem on their own. In a letter to Congress last week, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh stressed that states could use some of the $350 billion in local aid authorized under the last relief package to augment benefits locally.
"We still have more work to do, but the trend is clear: thanks to the grit and ingenuity of the American people and with the federal government executing on a plan to bring our economy back, our nation is getting back to work," they wrote.
The looming financial cliffs entering September highlight the unequal, unsteady nature of the country's economic recovery. Even as businesses have reopened, stocks have regained their value and employment, spending and national output have rocketed up, some of these improvements are not shared universally - leaving the hardest-hit Americans at risk of falling even further behind.
The troubles are laid bare in the latest data from the Census Bureau's weekly gauge of Americans' economic standing, which this week showed roughly one-quarter of those surveyed still struggle to pay for their usual household expenses. Slightly under a third also said they are not current on their rent or mortgage payments, making eviction likely in the next few months, according to the Household Pulse Survey data.
Hoping to keep Americans from the brink, Congress since last year has authorized roughly $6 trillion in stimulus spending, most recently with the roughly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Biden secured as his first legislative victory in March. The president also has unleashed a torrent of executive actions to protect homeowners, student borrowers and low-income Americans who stood to suffer financially through no fault of their own.
In a speech earlier this week, Biden touted the sum total of those efforts, saying the spending had put the U.S. recovery at a pole position "leading the world's advanced economies."
"Our economy has added 4 million jobs in my first six months in office," he said. "Economic growth is up to the fastest it's been - the fastest rate in 40 years. And unemployment is coming down."
But some of that aid is set to expire - and some of the money never reached families who needed it most - setting up a dire situation entering September.
The first casualty is the eviction moratorium, which had protected many renters who fell behind on their bills from being removed from their homes. Varying eviction safeguards have been in place since the start of the pandemic, with Biden and President Donald Trump arguing that a homelessness crisis would have worsened the spread of the coronavirus.
But the moratoriums have faced significant legal challenges from the start, especially from landlords who have argued in multiple lawsuits that they are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court sided with the industry in June, though the justices kept the directive intact until the end of July.
Days before they were to end, however, the White House angered its own allies by saying it had no legal authority to renew the protections. Citing the court's ruling, it made a late plea for Congress to act, though Democrats on Capitol Hill quickly found they lacked support even within their own party to write a moratorium into law. The standoff prompted lawmakers led by Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., to turn the pressure back up on Biden, who soon after issued another eviction policy that even the president acknowledged risked being overturned in court.
That defeat came late Thursday. In a 6-to-3 decision, the justices acknowledged the benefits of the protections while finding that "our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends." They called on Congress to "decide whether the public interest merits further action here."
The opinion opens the door for evictions to begin immediately, experts said, and it drew sharp condemnations on Capitol Hill. Bush, who had slept on the steps of the Capitol to protest the expiration of the last order in July, vowed in a letter with 60 other liberal-leaning lawmakers to continue the fight. They called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Friday to "act with the highest levels of urgency."
"Millions of people who are currently at risk for eviction, housing insecurity, or face becoming unhoused desperately look to their elected representatives to implement legislation that will put their health and safety first and save lives," the lawmakers wrote in their letter.
Housing advocates acknowledged Friday that it remains unlikely that Congress can muscle through its own disagreements to enact a moratorium, since Democrats have tried and failed to do so repeatedly since last year.
"Congress absolutely should implement a broad eviction moratorium during the pandemic," said Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "They should have done that at any time over the last 18 months. They can't and they very likely won't. They don't have the votes."
In the meantime, lawmakers and the White House continued to grapple with the added challenge of disbursing some of the $46.5 billion authorized over the course of the pandemic to help renters catch up on their past-due balances. The money has been slow to reach those who need it most, as a result of technical challenges, burdensome documentation requirements and bureaucratic delays within city and state programs nationwide.
In recent weeks and months, the Biden administration has labored to make it easier for renters to obtain the money, issuing guidance that it says should speed up the process. That includes efforts to help applicants demonstrate their financial need, outreach to governors and mayors and collaboration with nonprofit groups that can help get money out.
But the work has been slow, with some cities and states not following the White House's recommendations. Between January and the end of July, state and local programs spent only about $5.1 billion of the roughly $25 billion Congress appropriated in a December stimulus package, according to the Treasury Department. And only about $108 million of the roughly $21.5 billion authorized by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan in March had been spent at the end of June, the agency has said.
"This is the one American Rescue [Plan] program where you both can't deliver money to people from the federal government, and you have to rely on over 400 different jurisdictions to start up something they have never done at this scale," Sperling said. "The upside is if we can meet the demand in the crisis we will have gone a long way to build a more humane national infrastructure for a more humane eviction policy."
With evictions set to resume, millions of people also risk seeing a significant cut to their incomes after expanded federal unemployment benefits expire. The planned Sept. 6 expiration will cut some Americans' weekly checks by $300 - and for others it will slash their aid entirely.
Lawmakers augmented the unemployment system as part of the most recent stimulus, the latest in a series of efforts to ensure Americans who saw disruptions in their workplaces due to the coronavirus were not financially harmed as a result. Democrats' efforts included granting benefits for the first time to those who drive for Uber, deliver for Grubhub or otherwise participate in the "gig economy," since these workers normally cannot obtain unemployment in most states.
Some Democrats initially had hoped to authorize the extra jobless aid until the end of September, only to encounter steep resistance from the party's moderate members in the Senate, who at one point held up debate over the American Rescue Plan out of concern for the provision. Some Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., have maintained opposition to renewing the extra aid.
The program has taken even greater heat from Republicans, who argue the expanded payments have contributed to a worker shortage. Some GOP governors ended their participation in the program early to try to force their residents back to work, a move that some experts say has had limited success.
The political blowback has significantly diminished the prospects that Congress will raise unemployment benefits again before they are set to expire, especially since lawmakers will be away on recess at the time of the deadline. Even Biden has shown a lack of interest in the idea, saying in June it "makes sense" for the extra $300-per-week to subside.
A White House official pointed to state unemployment rates, which vary widely, in making the case that higher benefits applied nationally may not be economically justified. Instead, the Biden administration has sought to encourage states to tap other stimulus dollars if they believe they need to augment jobless aid - and has dispatched aides to instruct governors and other leaders on how to do so.
“The temporary $300 boost in benefits will expire on September 6th, as planned,” Yellen and Walsh wrote in their letter last week. “As President Biden has said, the boost was always intended to be temporary and it is appropriate for that benefit boost to expire.”