The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When every new dollar goes to old debt, families wonder whether stimulus will end poverty

Chakyya Harrison holds her daughter, Kelese, 2 months old, in their D.C. apartment. The Harrison family has had trouble paying their rent during the pandemic. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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She was a big believer in schedules, of having every day and every hour mapped out. Chakyya Harrison was raising three kids in a pandemic, two in diapers, another, 6, fidgeting through online learning. It helped to have a plan.

The details were laid on two whiteboards hanging in the 32-year-old’s apartment in Southeast Washington. Notes crammed every square of the March calendar. On the other empty board, each hour between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. was assigned an activity.

“8 am School.”

“2 pm Homework."

"5 pm Playtime.”

She kept a separate, unwritten list in her head of approaching deadlines and deadlines missed, bills due and bills that were never paid. But Harrison’s accounting was thrown off when she woke up on a Sunday morning in mid-March; $2,800 had been deposited into her Navy Federal Credit Union account. Before the money hit, the balance had been overdrawn by $522.30.

The funds were part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed into law by President Biden the week before. With no support from congressional Republicans, Democrats had designed a package of economic shock therapy for a country still trying to revive from the coronavirus pandemic. Included are programs such as rent relief, expanded unemployment and $1,400 stimulus payments, which Harrison and her husband had each just received.

The bill also contains the blueprints for an ambitious attack on generational poverty, largely thanks to an expansion of the child tax credit, which will provide eligible parents with up to $3,600 a year per child. Experts estimate that it will pull 4.1 million children out of poverty and cut the remaining population of kids in poverty by more than 40 percent. The bill establishes the programs for a year. In the process, the programs’ creators hope that public support for their methods will grow enough to make the changes permanent.

But little of the optimism framing the law has touched Harrison. The morning the money appeared, she drove to a nearby liquor store to fill out a money order for the March rent — $1010.

The sense of relief she felt when the stimulus money arrived soon faded. She still owed back rent and late fees — $1,721. She needed to pay the Internet service — $50. The cellphone bill — $75. Pampers and wipes for the babies — $80. By the time she paid for all that, the stimulus money would be down to about $1,000, not enough to cover April’s rent and who knew what else might come up.

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Every dollar she received went to make up for a dollar she didn’t have earlier, and when Harrison looked at her apartment’s whiteboard, comparing the calendar with the deadlines and the ledger in her head, she didn’t see how a stimulus bill could change that.

“Every year with my tax return money, it’s the same thing, too — boom, it goes to the rent,” Harrison said. "Now with the little stimmy we got — boom, goes to the rent. People are struggling because you all made the world this way.”

‘I was already struggling’

A year into the pandemic, millions of Americans still are wading through the economic uncertainty triggered by the virus and fueled by decades of stagnant wages and rising costs.

In mid-March the Household Pulse Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 10 million adults said they were behind on rent or mortgage payments and worried about making next month’s bill. Forty-seven million said they expect someone in their household to lose employment income in the next month. Seventy-eight million reported having trouble paying for household expenses.

Those concerns were real for Harrison long before the first coronavirus cases arrived stateside. “I was already struggling,” she said. “I haven’t felt stabilized since I had my children.”

That struggle was especially frustrating because she thought she had made choices that would put her on a self-reliant trajectory. Born and raised in D.C., Harrison got her home-health-aid certification and also became a certified nursing assistant. For years she worked with elderly clients in their homes while holding off starting a family until she was in her late 20s.

But the education came with $16,000 in student debt. The jobs ended when a client died, and then she was left looking for the next opportunity. Just to pay the bills, she also delivered for Domino’s and later Uber Eats on the side. Most years, she said, she never could earn more than $12,000.

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It was never enough. Harrison said every year since 2015 she has had to get help with her rent from either the Salvation Army or the city’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

In the summer of 2019, Harrison married her longtime boyfriend, Henry. She was four months pregnant with her second child, the couple’s first. A few months later, she was dismissed from her job at a group home. She fought the dismissal with a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filed for unemployment.

She had a baby boy, Henry. Then the virus arrived, the D.C. economy went dark, and the city was overrun in a few months with five times as many unemployment claims as in all of 2019. Harrison did not receive the payments until last July. In the meantime, she realized she was pregnant again.

The family had to make a choice. Harrison was worried about the coronavirus, especially with one infant and another coming. Her husband, Henry, who declined to be interviewed for this article, had a full-time minimum-wage job in the meat department at a BJ’s Wholesale Club, which carried the risk of exposure to the virus for himself and for the family. But no other money was coming in. “I had to spend all my savings,” Harrison said. “I only was able to get food stamps since I have my children.”

The couple decided Henry would keep working and live with his mother nearby. Harrison would take care of the children in their apartment. He visited when he could each week. Often it was late, when the kids were in bed, but Harrison figured that was better — that way they weren’t crawling all over him, picking up whatever he may have carried in from outside.

A life-changing jolt


The day after the stimulus checks arrived, Harrison was on her couch, one baby, 2-month-old Kelese, cradled in her arms. The 1-year-old, Henry, was testing out new steps on the carpet. Today, according to the whiteboard calendar, was for math.

“Mom!" Khaleel, 6, repeated from the table near the window where he was sitting before a laptop, the screen filled with a swirl of bright colors.

“You should be turned around counting,” Harrison said. “You are going to be sitting there until you are interested in it. I want to hear you counting out loud. That’s how you remember things. That’s the only way you are going to get it.”

In her head, Harrison was counting, too, trying to calculate how the latest stimulus package might help her family.

“I’ve worked a long time. I was struggling but I was still making ends meet,” she said. “Now I’m sitting here having nothing, not making ends meet, and depending on the stimmy and my husband. That’s hard.”

The key piece of the latest stimulus bill, the provision that experts say lays the true groundwork for poverty reduction, is the increased child tax credit offering eligible parents $3,600 for a child under 6 and $3,000 for 6 and older. Under the law, Harrison’s family would be eligible for $10,200.

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“For a family like that, that’s a lot,” said Chuck Marr, senior director of federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Most estimates of the bill’s impact do not dive into how debt might affect whether families will rise from poverty. But research by the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that more than 50 percent of Americans reported they spent the majority of past stimulus checks on paying off debt.

The latest package, however, offers a unique financial boost, Marr argued, with the stimulus combined with the child tax credit. "That’s a jolt. It gives people the chance to clear the decks.”

How that money gets distributed, however, will determine its significance for poor families. The new legislation gives the Internal Revenue Service latitude over how the funding will be delivered beginning in the middle of the year. “The whole debate going forward will be lump sum versus monthly payments,” Marr said.

Harrison was not sure what to expect. Monthly payments could easily be swallowed up by monthly expenses. If she is able to find work in the next several months, she hopes it will be a remote position so she could remain at home with her children. If not, she will also have to find day care for three kids in a city that has some of the highest child-care costs in the nation. If she is not able to go back to work, the family will probably fall behind on some of their bills and perhaps even their rent before the payments are expected to arrive in July.

A massive payment invited the question of whether the family should use it to get even with their debt or to finance a change. She had been thinking about leaving D.C. more as she sees less of it, locked day and night away with the children in the apartment. “I want a house, I want to move away from the city,” she said. “I want to do more things.”

“Mom!” her son called from his computer, but she did not look over.

“They made the world so there’s a top, a middle, and a bottom,” she said. “I always had felt like I was at the top of the bottom. And that I might be able to get to the middle. But now y’all got to pay us just to survive."

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