While Congress considers another stimulus, here’s what Americans did with the last one

Plus, thousands of veterans are waiting to be interred, Veterans Affairs cases are rising, those pet adoption stories might not end well, and more.

May 18, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

While Congress considers whether to pump another couple trillion dollars into the economy, let’s see if we can figure out what Americans did with the last stimulus checks.

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has been tracking stimulus spending:

Kellogg’s Scott R. Baker and fellow researchers have provided early answers to these questions based on real-time transaction-level spending data. They find that stimulus recipients are parting with their money remarkably quickly; on average, Americans spent roughly a third of the government-issued funds within 10 days of receiving it.

Overall, the researchers found that stimulus recipients began spending immediately after the checks landed in their accounts. Within 10 days of receipt, those who had received the stimulus payments had spent $600 more than those for whom the check hadn’t yet appeared. About half of the spending happened in the first three days after the check’s deposit.

The speed at which people spent the money is not directly proportional to their income, but rather to how much ready cash they had available to spend at that moment, called liquidity. For people who had $3,000 in checking accounts, there was little response in spending when the stimulus checks arrived. But for those who had $500 or less saved up, nearly half of the stimulus check was spent within a week and a half.

After the 2008 recession, the government sent households smaller stimulus deposits and a surprising number of people spent it on big-ticket buys like cars. But so far, not this time. The researchers found, “much more of the spending is devoted to groceries and takeout food, as well as to catching up on rent and bill payments.”

The researchers said that what this data shows them is that future stimulus programs might target recipients differently to achieve maximum effect. The researchers said it would make more sense to extend or expand unemployment compensation if you want to reach the people who need the money the most.

The Kellogg School study tracked closely to what others have forecast. Customers of the digital bank Current spent 16% of their stimulus money on food (including takeout and delivery), 9% on groceries and 10% on gas.

But an Axios poll found that more people saved their stimulus check than spent it.

Despite nearly 20% saying they had been furloughed, laid off or otherwise separated from their job, the most popular answer among survey respondents was to sock their money away, with 38% saying they put it into savings.

And Axios found some differences in behavior by race and ethnicity:

Black respondents’ top choice — 49% compared to 26% of all those surveyed — was to pay off debt, while more Hispanics planned to pay for food and basic household needs (40% vs 25%), as did respondents earning less than $50,000 (35%).

(Axios)

Thousands of veterans are waiting to be interred because of COVID-19

I wanted to give you a few veteran-related story ideas today in case you wanted to work on them for a Memorial Day story in a week.

There is a large and growing backlog of veteran families who are awaiting committal services at veteran cemeteries. The burials took place, but because of COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings, families could not attend the military services and honors that we owe our veterans.

For now, a Department of Veterans Affairs website is posting the name of every veteran who is to be honored at a VA cemetery service when they begin again. The website log began in mid-April and is updated every day. As you look at it, you may be surprised by the sheer size of the list, by cemetery, every day.

That website gives you an idea of how huge the backlog for services will be once the pandemic passes.

Military.com reported:

As of April 15, witnessing family members have been asked to observe interments from their cars or on the road near their cars, the (VA’s National Cemetery Administration) said.

The result has been a backlog in committal services at VA cemeteries as families have decided to hold off on interments, particularly for cremains, (NCA spokesman Les) Melnyk said.

“We’re going to be extremely busy” once the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, he added. He said a large ceremony to honor those interred during the restrictions might be planned, but families could also request individual services for those laid to rest during the pandemic.

“While we will work with families to schedule committal services once the crisis passes, we want to honor and remember these veterans now” with the creation of a “Roll of Honor” listing the names and service branches of the thousands interred since April 13, NCA said on its website.

The 142 national cemeteries run by the VA will be open to the public for Memorial Day, but without the usual big ceremonies

COVID-19 in the military

The VA provided an updated chart of COVID-19 cases in its convalescent homes and hospitals. As you can see, the COVID-19 curve is still growing there. You can search VA hospitals near you for the latest data.

Data last updated May 1 (Department of Veterans Affairs)

Stars and Stripes reported:

After weeks of supply shortages and staffing concerns, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it has obtained millions of respiratory masks and hired thousands of employees in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Initially, the VA struggled with its supply of masks and ordered hospitals to ration their supplies. VA nurses gathered nationwide in April to protest the lack of personal protective equipment.

State-run VA nursing homes have been COVID-19 hotspots in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama and California.

You have to wonder, when the pandemic has passed, whether we will change the way we care for seniors. In this Washington Post story, one administrator said we “warehouse” senior citizens when the pandemic shows us that we should provide private rooms and plenty of access to the outdoors.

The VA opposes hazard pay for medical workers

The Veterans Administration is hiring health care workers at a dizzying pace. But it is an attempt to replace 50,000 workers who had left their VA jobs, and critics said the VA was moving too slowly before the COVID-19 outbreak to fill those positions. The VA said it hired 9,338 new medical staffers — including 2,147 registered nurses — during the month of April.

The VA press secretary Christina Noel said that hazard pay “is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at VA.”

The Federal News Network put some perspective on how hazardous VA health care work is right now:

28 VHA employees have died from complications due to the coronavirus, including six at VA’s facility in East Orange, New Jersey, and three each in Indianapolis and Reno, Nevada, according to the department’s latest figures.

VA has been tracking 11,051 cases among veterans, VHA employees, veteran employees and civilian patients who have been tested or treated at department facilities on a cumulative basis since March.

According to its recently updated national COVID-19 summary tool, VA facilities are currently treating some 2,167 veterans across the country. Another 6,262 veterans have entered the convalescent phase, according to the department.

COVID-19 pet adoptions may not be as warm and fuzzy as you think

A lot of you have reported stories about how the stay-at-home orders led to lots of pet adoptions, and that is true. But that is not the whole story. March pet adoptions were way up, but this is one curve that has flattened.

Shelters closed because of the pandemic, and they cleared their cages. But lots of those animals were not adopted. They are in foster care, which means once people go back to work, the shelters are bracing for a resurgence of new animals.

Quartz reported:

According to data from 24HourPetWatch, a pet microchip company that collects data from roughly 1,500 US shelters and rescue centers, cat and dog adoptions have actually decreased by about a third compared to the same period last year.

And in the past couple of months, with shelters not taking in animals, what has happened to the strays who would normally be rounded up? Does animal control see an increase in the stray population with no place to put those animals?

Why a drop in child abuse reports during the lockdown may not be good news

You would think that it would be a good sign if child abuse reports declined, but the people who know about such things say it is not. They say it means kids are suffering and nobody is noticing.

CNN reported this weekend:

“When children are no longer visible to the vast majority of people who are trained and required to report, and then you see this kind of decline, we get super concerned,” said Melissa Jonson-Reid, a professor of social work research at Washington University in St. Louis.

Children’s advocates say they’re also having a harder time finding ways to intervene before abuse starts in at-risk families. Paula Wolfteich, intervention and clinical director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, told CNN that mitigation measures have hampered their contact with at-risk families and handicapped the organization’s ability to help.

“The kids that we normally can see and support and — and families that we can support, our hands are tied and we’re unable to do that as well as we usually do,” she said.

CNN looked at monthly statistics from around the country and found:

In Massachusetts alone, reports of alleged child abuse dropped almost 55% from 2,124 in the first week of March to just 972 by the last full week in April, according to data provided by the state.

Compared to last year, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Louisiana have all seen double-digit percentage drops as they’ve implemented their own stay-home orders.

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.