March 10, 2021

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

President Joe Biden is about to get his first significant legislative victory. It will result in a check of up to $1,400 for U.S. adults to be sent out by the end of the month (although these checks will not have the president’s name on them, unlike those sent by President Donald Trump).

The most important benefit for some families might not be the stimulus checks but instead the expanded health care coverage that the bill before the U.S. House includes today. Kaiser Health News says the bill “strengthens the Affordable Care Act with some of the most significant changes to insurance affordability in more than a decade.”

The stimulus bill includes $34 billion for health insurers to cover recently laid-off workers and those who purchase their own coverage — in other words, subsidies. By some estimates, it could mean a few million more people get subsidized health care coverage.

Kaiser Health gives you some background that will help you to cover this important angle:

The bill would spend $34 billion to help Americans who buy insurance on the marketplaces created by the ACA through 2022, when the benefits would expire.

Those who have studied the legislation said it would throw a lifeline to lower- and middle-income Americans who have fallen through the cracks of the government’s eligibility requirements for ACA assistance.

Stephanie Salazar-Rodriguez of Denver, for instance, is hopeful it will make a difference. Without changes, she expects to spend more than $10,000 on premiums this year after losing her primary job, and her insurance, last month.

If her annual income were $3,000 less, she could pay as little as $3,000 a year after subsidies.

“To me, that’s not affluence,” Salazar-Rodriguez said. “You’re talking about people who are struggling to survive.”

The legislation could also provide relief to others who purchase insurance on the exchanges and opt for policies with lower premiums but high deductibles — and often avoid seeking care because they don’t have the cash to cover those costs. Most of the nearly 14 million people enrolled in plans sold on the marketplaces would pay less under the new provisions, with the option to use those savings to buy a new plan with a lower deductible.

The Philadelphia Inquirer explains who will be eligible:

“Around the beginning of the Trump administration, the conversation was about repealing the Affordable Care Act,” said Krutika Amin, an associate director at Kaiser Family Foundation. “During the pandemic, the Affordable Care Act has really served as a safety net.”

The bill also relieves people of having to pay back tax credits they received in 2020 if their income ended up higher than they estimated during enrollment — a problem analysts say will be common for marketplace shoppers whose income was unpredictable and fluctuated significantly during the pandemic.

For instance, a 60-year-old with $55,000 annual income would pay $390 a month for a middle-range health plan with the stimulus bill’s enhanced tax credits, compared with $887 a month now, according to analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Tax credits vary, based on age, location and income level. Currently, people are eligible for tax credits only if their annual income is within 400% of federal poverty, about $51,000 for an individual. The bill eliminates the income cap, making more people eligible for a reduced health insurance premium, the amount you pay per month for the plan.

What else is in the stimulus bill and how will it affect you?

Other important parts of the bill include a $300-per-week jobless benefit boost and programs expanding unemployment aid to millions more Americans through Sept. 6. State and local governments are counting on the money coming their way. The legislation also includes an expansion of the child tax credit and rental and utility assistance.

The Senate bill that goes before the House today also includes a provision intended to avert surprise tax bills for unemployed people who receive the new benefits. The stimulus bill waives federal income taxes for the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits received in 2020 for households earning under $150,000.

And while it will not put cash in pockets now, another benefit will show up in 2021 tax returns for people with children and would temporarily expand the 2021 child tax credit. The current $2,000 tax credit for every child under age 17 would go up to $3,600 for children up to age 5 and as much as $3,000 for children 6 to 17.

11 million families risk losing homes when rent eventually comes due

In all probability, Congress will come to some agreement in the coming days that will help some families pay rent and mortgages. But we are approaching a year since some people have faced eviction because they did not or could not pay up and, one of these days, it will all come due.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said this week it estimates 11 million families will be at risk once the federal and state protections expire. That includes 2.1 million homeowners who are at least 90 days behind on mortgage payments and 8.8 million households that are behind on rent.

The report summarizes the situation this way:

In 2020, those who have fallen behind at least three months on their mortgage increased 250 percent to over 2 million households, and is now at a level not seen since the height of the Great Recession in 2010. Collectively, these households are estimated to owe almost $90 billion in deferred principal, interest, taxes and insurance payments.

At the same time, we are facing a rental crisis, with over 8 million rental households behind in their rent. While there are significant differences from the last crisis, particularly a more stable mortgage market and substantial homeowner equity, there are a significant number of households at risk of losing their housing just as the U.S. economy is poised to emerge from the pandemic — a disproportionate number of them from communities of color.

(Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

The data says it is not just low-income families that are in trouble. The chart below shows this story cuts across significant swaths of your entire audience(s). And add to that the business community that owns the properties that are not producing any income.

(Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)

“Put simply: we have very little time to prevent millions of families from losing their homes,” acting CFPB Director Dave Uejio wrote in a blog post this week. “I am deeply concerned that a mass wave of evictions and foreclosures will turn millions of families out on the streets. Such an event will not only be a humanitarian and public health disaster but will have repercussions throughout the housing sector and our economy at large.”

Journalists, this story is coming. Get in front of it. If I was thinking about creating a 2021 story beat, this would be it — along with something around the learning deficit for kids who have been out of the classroom since 2020.

Half as many houses are for sale in the pandemic

A home for sale in Madison, Georgia, is shown Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

One reason housing prices are so high right now is that there are few houses on the market. Real estate tracking company Altos Research says there are about half as many houses for sale now as there were last winter.

The pandemic is partly to blame. People are reluctant to have other people traipsing through their house. Baby boomers who might be ready to downsize are staying put right now because of the pandemic. Others might stay put for a while, not knowing if they are going to be working from home or going back to the office anytime soon.

The New York Times looked at Altos’ data and talked with experts who concluded:

There is another factor particular to the pandemic: At the peak, more than four million homeowners with government-backed loans were in mortgage forbearance during the pandemic (about 2.6 million still are). While that government policy, recently extended through June, has been a lifeline for many families who’ve lost income, it has also meant that some homes that most likely would have come on the market over the past year, either through foreclosure or a forced sale, did not.

Add all of this up, and for every tale of someone who ran off and bought in the suburbs or paid all-cash sight unseen in some far-flung town, the larger story of the pandemic is this: Americans have been staying put.

That reality has collided with other forces that have been building since the housing crash. Even before the pandemic, real estate agents and economists were fretting about a shortage of inventory, which had been trending downward since the housing bust.

Vox has a different take on the effect of higher home prices and tight inventory:

The boom has been welcome news for homeowners (about 65 percent of American households are owner-occupied), but it’s troubling for the growing number of Americans who are being shut out of the housing market altogether.

In a new Urban Institute report, researchers found that if the country continues down the same road, over the next two decades the US homeownership rate is set to decline to 62.1 percent. The losses will be concentrated among younger people and Black Americans. When you break down the findings by age cohort, things look grim: Younger millennials will have a homeownership rate of 64 percent as opposed to the 72 percent of boomers who owned homes at their age. Further, the racial homeownership gap between Black and white Americans is set to increase among 55- to 64-year-olds from 28.9 percentage points to 33.3 percentage points.

One group of retailers is growing like crazy

A woman, right, waits in line to shop at the Dollar Tree store, May 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Did you see the recent announcement from Dollar Tree? The company says it will open 600 new stores this year. Let me say it again: THIS year, 600 stores. Dollar Tree just reported quarterly profits and said sales at stores open for at least one year increased 4.9% during the 13 weeks ending Jan. 30, compared with the same stretch a year ago.

The torrid expansion will bring the company to 15,700 stores in the United States.

At the same time, another value-focused store chain, Dollar General, has added 1,000 stores a year.

Dollar Tree says it will open stores in towns of 3,000 to 4,000 people and that the stores will be designed to be one-stop shops, including groceries for people buying pandemic supplies.

Does COVID-19 make you lose your hair?

People who track such things say that an awful lot of people have been googling the question of whether there is a link between hair loss and COVID-19. There may be, but it is not a direct link. Experts tell NPR the connection is more likely that the pandemic is causing you stress and stress is causing hair loss.

Struggling universities rethink tenure

This is a micro example of a macro issue. John Carroll University in Ohio just voted to end tenure protections for faculty beginning this fall. Tenure is a benefit that helps justify professors working at lower pay than they would earn in the private sector.

News5 in Cleveland explains:

As of now, tenured staff members can only be fired if their entire department is eliminated or if there is an extreme financial crisis. But with the board’s amendment to the faculty handbook, the university can fire individual tenured employees, without cause, if there is a budgetary hardship.

Professors have long argued that tenure assures them “academic freedom,” which means they are protected from being singled out and fired for what they teach and how they teach it. Tenure does not mean they cannot be fired, but there has to be a process. By some estimates, about 2% of tenured faculty are fired each year. And tenured faculty generally must serve on university committees, produce research and teach. So tenure is not a golden ticket to an easy ride in most places.

But people who watch the declining economic health of higher education’s finances have been forecasting the end of tenure for some time. The pandemic and the subsequent drop in enrollment at some schools accelerated the conversation. The Labor Department says schools employed about 150,000 fewer workers (a 10% drop) by the end of last year than they did before the pandemic began.

The Wall Street Journal featured Kenneth Macur, the president of Medaille College in Buffalo, New York:

The campus shut down and revenue plummeted 15%. Dr. Macur saw what he considered an opportunity: With the approval of the board of trustees, he suspended the faculty handbook by invoking an “act of God” clause embedded in it. He laid off several professors, cut the homeland security and health information management programs, rescinded the lifelong job security of tenure and rewrote the faculty handbook, rules that had governed the school for decades.

“I believe that this is an opportunity to do more than just tinker around the edges. We need to be bold and decisive,” he wrote in a letter to faculty on April 15. “A new model is the future of higher education.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on an effort to rid Iowa’s state universities of tenure rules in a movement that has more to do with politics than economics:

Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature is considering a bill to eliminate tenure at the state’s three public universities — Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Northern Iowa. The bill is nothing new; similar versions have been introduced for several years running, never to advance further than that. But this year, the bill passed a full committee vote for the first time.

The bill’s odds of passage are still slim. But it has put Iowa at the forefront of the decades-long battle against higher education by conservative legislators — an assault that may be supercharged by the cultural grievances of the Trump era. As in other states, Republican lawmakers argue that colleges are squelching views that don’t hew to progressive ideals of gender, racial, and economic equity.

The bill to kill tenure is necessary, legislators have said, so institutions can fire faculty members who discriminate against students expressing conservative political views — though the handful of examples they cite rarely involve a tenured faculty member.

Journalists, this issue will become much more common. Tenure will be easier to eliminate in private schools that do not have to go through the legislative process.

The times in which we live: cow cuddling

Just how weird has the pandemic made us? Here is a story about a place that will sort of rent a cow to you to cuddle. The cow-cuddling sessions, which cost $75 an hour, are booked until July.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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