They lived a typical middle-class life in a farmhouse. Now they borrow money just to feed the family and pets.

MICHIGAN—The Andersons are your everyday Michigan family with a small town farmhouse raising three boys, three cats, and three dogs. Both from rural communities, Amanda and Mathew met in the restaurant industry 10 years ago and bought their dream home not far from where they both grew up. 

Before the coronavirus, Mathew was the provider for the family with his $53,000 management job. Now, the family they spent the last decade building has been hit hard. 

Like nearly 100,000 Michiganders, they find themselves surviving on unemployment benefits. For them, that’s $323 a week—for 11 mouths to feed. 

“You read the statistics that you’re one missed paycheck away from almost-homelessness, that’s kind of where we’re at here,” Amanda said about the latest news of the pandemic. “And it just goes to show you that you’re the majority of Americans.”

Everything about their life as a middle-class family in Michigan has changed. This was not how it was supposed to be. 

“After we got married, [we] paid off our debt, and bought this house,” Amanda said. “We did our due diligence and then…it just doesn’t matter, it’s all just gone so quickly.”

The coronavirus eviscerated Michigan’s restaurant industry. Small towns with privately owned businesses like the restaurant that employed Mathew were hit hardest in the first weeks of the pandemic. Mathew’s restaurant offered carry-out orders for two days before closing altogether in March, Anderson recalls. 

“No one got paid vacation time that they were owed, nothing,” she said. “It was just shut down, shut off, and ‘Shut up, file for unemployment.’”

For months, the household only had the $323 a week through Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) and was ineligible for food assistance. That led to many nights pouring over budgets, bills, and borrowed money. 

A Rapidly Ticking Clock

The Anderson family was approved for unemployment benefits, but the maximum payment a person can receive is $362 per week, according to Lynda M. Robinson, communications specialist for Michigan’s UIA. That’s before taxes are taken out. 

“The amount you receive in unemployment benefits is calculated by multiplying the highest amount of wages paid to you in any base period quarter by 4.1%,” Robinson told The ‘Gander, adding that those who support dependents can receive up to an additional $6 for up to five dependents.

Over the summer, that number was higher. This, thanks to efforts by Congress to strengthen the unemployment insurance system and help ease the devastating financial blow dealt to workers  by the coronavirus pandemic. But that extra $600 a week expired in July.

The Republican-controlled Senate has not acted to restore that emergency funding for Michiganders like Amanda, and they’ve advocated for either severely limiting or outright eliminating the emergency assistance in whatever next coronavirus relief package will pass. Even the lukewarm support given by President Donald Trump came with drastic cuts and burdens on already strained state finances. 

And that support also has a rapidly ticking clock before it, too, evaporates. Lawmakers are still deciding if Americans will continue to receive the additional $300 coronavirus enhancement to unemployment insurance.

Amanda said it isn’t enough and that borrowing money from friends and family is “humiliating.”

“I just felt like a failure,” she said, recalling the few times she had to ask for help. “We chose to have these children, we have animals that we are responsible for, and it [the cookie-cutter perfection] just all was gone so quickly.”

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From Cookie-Cutter to Chaos 

The Andersons started the pandemic like your average middle class family. It was a journey nearly 10 years in the making. 

“When we started our family we both had full-time jobs and full benefits,” Amanda told The ‘Gander. “So cookie cutter, perfect [life].” 

Eventually, she became a full-time mom, a role she loved.

“We actually looked at the numbers and it didn’t really make sense for me to work: I was making $10 an hour at the time, and [paying for] daycare and health insurance, I was negative $50 a week.”

Over the next four years, Amanda stayed home with her son. Then, she and her husband had two more boys and the family of animal lovers rescued three dogs and three cats, filling the house they invested in with love and activity. They saved their money and lived off of the single income and benefits of Mathew’s job.

“And then when COVID hits, we can’t even pay our mortgage,” she said.

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The family’s normal income was $758 a week. During the beginning of the pandemic the entire household lived on just $323 for a three-week period before payments caught up. 

It’s now been six months since Mathew lost his job and Amanda has found ways to stretch their income and shuffle bills to keep everything going.

The Andersons had to take out a forbearance on their mortgage just to make ends meet. They almost lost their utilities with a $900 propane tank bill that they didn’t qualify for assistance on. 

They had to turn to others just to feed their family.

“We applied for food assistance because we’d already borrowed money just to get food and our worker asked if we received our full [unemployment] benefit,” Amanda said. “She said we don’t qualify if we receive full benefits.”

Their story is one that many Michiganders are experiencing. 

Graphic by Desiree Tapia
Graphic by Desiree Tapia

Plans, Not Persecution

The Andersons describe their town views and government as conservative. Amanda says assistance is seen as unfavorable and often shameful in her community. 

“The insulting part wasn’t the [amount], the insulting part comes from my peers to be totally honest with you,” Amanda says of neighbors and friends on social media. She says both she and her husband would prefer to work rather than live on temporary assistance. 

“Do you think the bills stop coming?” she added. “It’s like, pay the electric bill this month and pay the TV bill next month, and then rotate.” 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden plans to bolster programs like the UIA, using federal funding instead of Trump’s approach of making cash-strapped states come up with the money themselves. The plan would “transform unemployment insurance into Employment Insurance,” according to Biden’s campaign website.

Currently, states fund their own unemployment programs to offer temporary financial assistance to residents who are between jobs. Biden wants to reduce the number of unemployment claims with his plan by allowing for flexible work schedules and time off to take care of family and other emergencies.

“For the workers that are laid off, we should swiftly compensate for lost wages and health benefits for all of them, not just those who can make it through the bureaucracy,” Biden said in a statement about the plan. “As we navigate this crisis, our paramount economic priority must be to make American workers whole, so they retain their income and benefits during this period of social distancing.”

Biden also knows hard times—a reason Amanda says he has her vote. 

“Biden has empathy and Trump has shown no empathy at any point,” she said. “Trump has no idea what it is to work for what you have and not have parents to bail you out.”

Whereas Trump was born into wealth, something the Anderson’s don’t relate to as middle class Michiganders, Amanda says she saw Biden rise up out of his own emergency. She’s talking about when Biden’s first wife died in a car accident with daughter Naomi just weeks after he was elected as one of the youngest senators. 

“You can’t teach empathy, you either have it or you don’t,” Amanda said. “Biden supports a living wage; He understands what it’s like to have a life changing event to happen to you. You have to keep moving forward.”

Graphic by Desiree Tapia

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*The ‘Gander changed the name of this family to protect their privacy.