Jessica Klein

Jessica Klein 

This Thanksgiving, some things will be different for just about everyone. Kentuckians will sit down for dinner with fewer family members and friends than they’re used to seeing. Remembrances of lost or absent loved ones may complicate the holiday’s traditional counting of blessings.

Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians face other urgent, devastating realities this holiday season. Many do not have enough food to meet household needs, much less provide for a Thanksgiving feast.

They have lost jobs and income during the COVID-19 crisis. With the expiration of temporary, pandemic-related assistance looming at the end of December, many face having their utilities shut off or being evicted during the cold winter. 

As coronavirus cases spike and economic hardship deepens for many, additional federal relief must pass before the new year to prevent substantial harm to Kentuckians already struggling to make ends meet and to keep the recovery from weakening further.

Kentucky’s real unemployment remains historically high, with low-wage jobs in particular remaining far below pre-pandemic levels. Monthly census data shows that 30% of Kentuckians are struggling to meet basic needs like food, heat or rent. Despite that, unemployment benefits are ending for thousands of Kentuckians.  

Through most of 2020, self-employed workers, independent contractors and others not eligible for traditional unemployment benefits have been eligible to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). However, that program ends Dec. 26. According to the most recent Labor Department data, 50,201 Kentucky jobless workers were still receiving PUA benefits.

Other workers are on the verge of exhausting their 52 weeks of available benefits, including 26 weeks provided by the state, 13 weeks of federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and 13 weeks provided by the state in partnership with the federal government. The PEUC program also expires Dec. 26, affecting the 21,039 Kentuckians currently receiving it. 

According to an estimate by The Century Foundation, the Dec. 26 cutoff of these benefits, combined with other recent and impending expirations at the end of the year, will leave over 101,000 Kentuckians with no income as the pandemic crisis grows and a second economic slowdown becomes more likely.   

State rental assistance is also running out. An estimated 12% of renters are not caught up on rent payments in this crisis. To help, Kentucky allocated $15 million of CARES Act funds for rental assistance beginning in September. However, this eviction prevention fund quickly ran out and new applications stopped being accepted on Nov. 5. This lack of sufficient financial assistance, combined with the Dec. 31 expiration of temporary eviction protections, creates new risk of Kentuckians becoming homeless just as winter arrives.   

Many Kentuckians are also having trouble paying utility bills, yet another problem whose urgency rises as temperatures drop. Kentucky issued an order requiring utilities to offer payment plans and waive late fees until Dec. 31.

The state also used $15 million of CARES Act funds to create a utility relief fund. However, the Public Service Commission estimated $150 million in relief funding would be needed to provide adequate utility assistance just through the end of 2020.

And even though the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Pandemic EBT (which provides grocery money for missed school meals) have been critical to keeping food on the table for Kentuckians facing increasing food insecurity, this aid is inadequate to prevent rising food prices and lowered incomes from leaving many families hungry. 

Safety-net programs are there to help all of us when we need it most. Unemployment benefits, food and housing assistance, Medicaid and other programs have allowed many Kentuckians and our state economy to weather the COVID-19 crisis better, thus far, than we would have otherwise. 

But the need for a new round of robust relief is becoming more urgent by the day with bills coming due and the pandemic’s worsening crises. Congress must provide additional federal relief to states and expand supports that have been so critical to Kentuckians struggling through the pandemic. 

Continued failure to act will weaken the economic recovery by reducing consumer spending, and Kentucky families will face dire levels of hardship as benefits expire. 

For Kentuckians, time is running out, and for Congress, it’s time to do something worthy of the spirit of Thanksgiving — provide help where it’s needed most.

Jessica Klein is a policy associate at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. She can be emailed at jessica@kypolicy.org

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