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Struggling Americans blast stimulus bill as too little, too late

Pedro Martinez has a simple message for Congress: “HELP US!”

The military veteran and father of four said the $600 payments passed this week as part of a second coronavirus relief package are far too little to undo the financial damage his family has suffered as the pandemic has surged again — a message also adopted by President Donald Trump, who late Tuesday released a video broadcasting his displeasure with the relief bill.

Martinez, his family’s sole breadwinner since August, said that $600 might cover a months’ worth of groceries, but not more for his kids, ages 1 to 7. He works for the York County prison system in Pennsylvania, and says he was infected with Covid-19 at work — and wasn’t paid for the time he was out sick.

“The level of stress was very real,” he said. “I was lucky enough to keep my job, but others weren’t so lucky. Front line workers have been left to fend for themselves.”

Martinez told CNN on Wednesday that the family has had to dip into savings to keep financially afloat. The decision has now led the family to delay their hopes of buying a home, which they had planned to do in the coming year.

“We have been left to dry while Congress still collects a paycheck and our ‘government’ still taxes the American people,” he said. “It is our money that they use for all their business. Pay us back and HELP US!”

Martinez was among more than 1,700 CNN readers who wrote in with their reaction to the new stimulus package, and almost all of them expressed deep disappointment with the level of relief, which came after months of start-stop negotiations.

Trump, in his Tuesday night video, signaled that he may not sign the coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress unless it amends the massive spending legislation to raise the amount of stimulus payments.

“I’m asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 per couple,” Trump said in a video released on Twitter. “I’m also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items in this legislation or to send me a suitable bill.”

The $900 billion relief package passed on Monday would provide a $300 weekly enhancement to jobless payments for 11 weeks, extend two key pandemic unemployment programs through early spring, send up to $600 in direct payments, renew the eviction moratorium, increase food stamps and other nutrition assistance, and give more aid to struggling small businesses.

The help is too little, too late, say Americans who have had trouble making ends meet amid the coronavirus-wrought economic upheaval. The $1,200 stimulus checks from the March package have long been spent, and the $600 federal boost for laid-off workers ended in July.

Sherry Tipton of Winchester, Kentucky, said she hasn’t lost her job, but has witnessed those around her suffer — and says they need more ongoing government help.

“$600 dollars is a slap in the face,” she said in an email response to CNN. “Every other industrialized nation was able to keep their citizens afloat during this crisis, but we have woefully cared more about tax cuts for the rich than caring for the poor and working class. It is shameful, but emblematic of the ‘leadership’ in this country.”

New Jersey resident Mallory Ware echoed that sentiment, saying that she feels Congress has abandoned her, her family and all struggling Americans amid the recession and worsening pandemic.

She’s had to take responsibility for most of her mother’s $1,600 monthly mortgage to keep a roof over their heads, preventing her from paying back her student loans and saving for her future. Her mother, who is employed at a hotel nearby, now works only eight hours a week since the pandemic has eviscerated tourism and conferences.

The family was able to stay afloat in the early months of the pandemic, thanks largely to the $600 weekly boost in unemployment benefits that lawmakers passed in late March, and Ware is mystified as to what took Congress so long to provide more assistance despite the growing need.

“I have a deep love for our country, but I truly feel that we have been failed by its leadership,” said Ware, who feels fortunate to have a job at a community development nonprofit group.

John Ringhisen, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Syracuse, New York, said that the economic fallout from the pandemic has “exacerbated existing conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use.”

“Time and again I sit and listen to patients furious at the departure of American leadership too caught up in party politics to pass the relief that could have saved lives from overdose and suicide,” Ringhisen wrote in an email. “People feel trapped by their situation, hopeless in their future, and abandoned by every level of government when the first round of relief expired in July. This second relief bill is a pitiful attempt by Congress to save face before the holidays.”

Ringhisen also worries about the potential fallout once the pandemic is over and how Americans will be helped then. He told CNN that financial boost helps some, but those already struggling to cope with the stress of the pandemic are going to need continued help as economic recovery slowly begins amid vaccinations.

“I need a way for patients to afford the care they’ll need in the next legislative gap between assistance and recovery once our leadership decides to declare victory over Covid,” he added.

In a year-end news conference Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden said the package provides “vital relief at a critical moment,” but is “far from perfect.” He said he plans to go to Congress early next year to urge more assistance for the “millions of hurting families who are unable to put food on the table, pay rent or the mortgage,” as well as others in need of help.

“As I have said all along, this bill is just the first step, a down payment in addressing the crises — more than one — that we’re in,” he said. “There’s a lot more work to do.”

This story has been updated with additional reader responses.

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