Nearly 10 months into this brutal pandemic, Americans haven’t exactly received a ton of help from their government. The $600-a-week boost to jobless benefits provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act expired at the end of July, even as a second wave of COVID-19 cases was sweeping the country, and unemployment benefits are set to expire for 12 million Americans the day after Christmas. Paycheck Protection Program loans, aimed at keeping small businesses afloat, ended back in August.
And in terms of direct cash payments, Americans have received a single stimulus check for $1,200. That was about eight months and nearly 100,000 permanent business closures ago, making that solitary stimulus check feel now like a foggy memory.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a $908 billion COVID-19 relief package Tuesday, hoping to get the ball rolling on some much-needed follow-up aid. It’s perhaps unlikely that a new relief bill will include another round of stimulus checks — but if it did, a more generous sum might be in order. For while the stimulus money proved a welcome, if fleeting, financial life raft for many people, $1,200 just doesn’t go as far as it used to — particularly in high-cost areas like Boston.
A new report by Move.org ranked the cost of living in 75 US metro areas, and found that $1,200 would barely cover a third of the average Bostonian’s basic monthly expenses. “Even in the most affordable cities, a $1,200 stimulus check, like the ones distributed in April 2020, would fail to cover even one month of living costs,” said Move.org communications specialist Adrienne Aguilera.
Boston ranked as the fourth-most expensive city in the report, behind San Francisco, New York, and Oakland. Basic expenses here — stuff like rent, food, gas, and utilities — add up to $3,426 a month, on average, according to Move.org. That means a $1,200 check is enough to cover just about 10 and a half days of life in Boston.
Unsurprisingly, rent comprises the biggest bulk of that burden by far. The Move.org report used rent and other price data from Numbeo, calculating costs for a single person in a one-bedroom apartment. But even a couple who received two checks for a combined $2,400 wouldn’t be able to cover a month of rent in an average one-bedroom Boston apartment with the money, according to the report. (Average rents in Boston have since dropped somewhat.)
And even in El Paso — the least expensive major metro area, where the average one-bedroom unit rents for just $710 a month — $1,200 still wouldn’t cover a full month of basic expenses, which Move.org estimates at $1,324.
So it appears that, as welcome and urgent as it would be, a $1,200 check would either be too little or too late — like, 33 years too late. For $1,200 to even come close to covering a month of essentials in Boston, you’d have to go as far back as 1987 — when a dozen eggs cost 78 cents and you could buy a new Dodge truck for under six grand.
Back then, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the average Boston-area household spent just $6,049 a year on shelter — or about $500 a month. Add $1,915 a year spent on groceries, $1,479 on utilities, and $5,676 on transportation, and the average Bostonian was spending $15,119 a year on basic expenses in 1987, or $1,260 a month.
More than 100 economists in November signed an open letter urging the federal government to provide robust and repeated stimulus payments to Americans to stave off poverty and economic disaster. “The next stimulus needs to be big, immediate and direct, and lasting until the economy recovers,” the letter reads. “We urge policymakers to use all the tools at their disposal to revitalize the economy, including direct cash payments, which are one of the quickest, most equitable, and most effective ways to get families and the economy back on track.”
Failing that, a time machine might come in handy.