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American Indicators Check-In: The Faces And Stories Behind The Economic Statistics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've been following the pandemic recession and recovery through the lives of four people. We're calling them our American indicators. They represent different parts of the country and different sectors of the economy. We gave each of them a quick call last month when President Biden signed a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill into law.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country.

LEE CAMP: I'm very excited to see all of the housing relief make it to the president's desk and now into law.

SHAPIRO: That's Lee Camp, a housing attorney who advocates for people facing eviction in the St. Louis area. About 1,500 miles to the west, Brooke Neubauer runs the biggest mobile food pantry in the state of Nevada.

BROOKE NEUBAUER: There is a lot of financial support coming for the food-insecure organizations, which I think is amazing.

SHAPIRO: Stimulus checks and relief programs don't roll out overnight. So we waited about a month after the bill became law, and then we called back all four of our American indicators to see what things look like for them right now. We started with Brooke Neubauer, founder of The Just One Project that distributes groceries around Las Vegas.

NEUBAUER: So when the stimulus checks hit, we absolutely saw a decrease in our serving lines for sure.

SHAPIRO: Interesting; like, by how much?

NEUBAUER: We typically serve over 17,000 people. And last month, just as an example, when the stimulus checks came out, we served 12,000.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

NEUBAUER: So it's a pretty big clip.

SHAPIRO: That's, like, a third less almost.

NEUBAUER: I know. It really is, you know? And I could just think about the fact that - how many of our clients were just so excited to go to the grocery store and just buy whatever they wanted. I mean, that had to have been a very special feeling for them because it's something that they haven't been able to do in so long.

SHAPIRO: She told me her biggest concern is that this relief bill is like a sugar rush and that economic challenges from the pandemic are going to continue for years. What she really needs is long-term support to plan far ahead.

NEUBAUER: Like, if we could set up a plan and have multiple-year funding, I think that would give nonprofits an amazing chance to create sustainable programs that would actually help our communities long term.

SHAPIRO: Nevada's governor says his state will be fully open by June 1, but New Jersey is moving more slowly. That's where Bhavesh Patel lives. He is our second American indicator.

BHAVESH PATEL: I am the principal at ADM Hotels and also the chairman of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

SHAPIRO: The COVID relief package did a lot for restaurants, not so much for hotels. And Patel's family owns seven hotel properties.

PATEL: I was just talking to a cousin of mine in Georgia. And he says March, April have been really good. They're going back to their 2019 numbers, before COVID. And I'm like, that's fantastic. And he's like, what about you? I'm like, well - well, no, I don't think we're going to see that yet.

SHAPIRO: When we first spoke to you back in February, you said you'd been at about 10- to 15% occupancy. What are you seeing these days?

PATEL: We're seeing in the mid - like, the low 20s - 22%, 23%. So it's climbed. But again, it's not anywhere where we need it to be survival - or survival mode.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about your employees.

PATEL: One of the things that we're realizing - not only in my business but other businesses and other hotels - is it's just too hard to find employees right now. They're, like - they're making a lot more money staying at home, collecting unemployment. I think it's every business. You go out there - whether it's a Wawa, a 7-Eleven, whether it's a bank, whether it's restaurants, hotels - everyone is looking for employees, and no one - just can't find them right now.

SHAPIRO: A group called the National Federation of Independent Business put out a report last week, saying that 42% of businessowners reported job openings that could not be filled. They say that's a record number. Of course, one answer is to offer higher salaries. But for Bhavesh Patel, with more than three-quarters of his rooms empty, the money just isn't there. So that's the view from a hotel owner in New Jersey.

In St. Louis, the new law helped people stay in their rooms rather than getting kicked out on the street. Housing attorney Lee Camp told me the relief package made a huge difference to renters facing eviction.

CAMP: Essentially, if you're behind on rent right now, you will have an opportunity to apply for rental relief that would, hopefully, cure any rental arrears that you may have as a result of the pandemic and would also square you up with your landlord so that you would not face the threat of eviction. And the idea is to increase housing stability, really, throughout this country.

SHAPIRO: So that's really different from a moratorium on evictions. That's like wiping out debt.

CAMP: Yeah, it certainly is.

SHAPIRO: But his clients can't relax just yet. For many of them, the rental relief has been slow to come through, and St. Louis County just started processing evictions for the first time in more than a year. Every day, Camp gets calls from people facing eviction. That confused me because there is a CDC moratorium on evictions. Lee Camp explained.

CAMP: So the CDC moratorium is a type of opt-in protection. Tenants have to literally fill out a form and provide it to their landlord, declaring financial hardship and an inability to get rental assistance funding before they're protected by that moratorium, which is very difficult for a lot of tenants. And the main reason is they're just not aware that they have to actually opt in to this protection.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure that on some level, even though the government may be providing more help, it's also, like, the rules keep constantly changing. And what you learned one month might not be relevant the next month.

CAMP: That's exactly right, and I'm very lucky to have a law degree to be able to navigate those different changes. It's so incredibly hard for individuals, particularly the families I work with, who are already in crisis. They're likely out of work. They've received notices from the sheriffs that they could be physically removed from their homes. And now they're trying to navigate rules that are changing what seems to me to be by the minute.

SHAPIRO: So he sees reason for optimism and also concern. Our fourth and final American indicator is Lisa Winton. Her family owns a small manufacturing plant outside of Atlanta.

LISA WINTON: We help our customers make tubular parts for their products; so for instance, a refrigerator, freezer, chair, lawnmower.

SHAPIRO: For her, the coronavirus relief bill has not made a big difference. But the next major package could - the Biden administration's infrastructure and jobs plan.

WINTON: I think in general for our industry, it will make a dramatic impact.

SHAPIRO: On the one hand, she's really excited about the worker training provisions in the package. She has found it tough to hire up people with the technology skills that her plant requires. And especially with all the people who've been laid off in other industries, she sees a big opportunity.

WINTON: And so the ability for them to retrain to jobs in manufacturing that have higher pay scales, I think, can only benefit our economy and our country.

SHAPIRO: But on the other hand, she's very concerned about the plan to pay for this by raising taxes on corporations. She says that could set her back.

WINTON: So what we've seen in the past is we've seen, like, a huge influx of business when the taxes went down for corporations because they did do so much investment. And so for us, that was a really great thing. So my concern is the other side of the coin - if their taxes go up, are they going to stop investing in capital equipment?

SHAPIRO: Her employees are getting vaccinated. Some of her customers are starting to visit the plant again. And in June, she is planning to attend her first in-person trade show since before the pandemic. Like all of our American indicators, Lisa Winton says she feels a sense of progress tempered by a fear of the unknown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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