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A Year of Hardship, Helped and Hindered by Washington


Still, Ms. Stewart worked, most happily in solitude.

By 2019, Ms. Stewart was a night janitor and living with her sister in Grand Rapids. Her sister fell behind on the rent and insisted they move in with their mother, five hours away in rural Ossineke. Ms. Stewart grudgingly succumbed. “We all rely on each other, which is good except for us not getting along,” she said.

With four children and conflicting parenting styles, the trailer proved crowded and tense. When Ms. Stewart found work as a gas station cashier — $10 an hour, 20 hours a week — she welcomed the escape as much as the pay.

A few weeks later, the coronavirus hit.

As the virus spread in early March, President Donald J. Trump insisted it posed no threat. “Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring,” he tweeted. By the next week, Disneyland and Broadway were padlocked and the stock market notched its worst daily loss in decades.

While the need for Washington action was clear, the risks of an impasse were great. Liberal Democrats controlled the House, conservative Republicans held the Senate, and Mr. Trump derided the House speaker as “Crazy Nancy” Pelosi. Yet within a few weeks, they agreed on a $2.2 trillion plan.

One surprise was how much it did for the poor, a class not known for political clout. Even the poorest families fully qualified for stimulus payments — $1,200 for adults, $500 for children (some Republicans had proposed giving them less) — and at the Democrats’ insistence, Congress greatly expanded jobless benefits.

The existing program was filled with gaps: It covered only about a quarterof the jobless and replaced less than half their lost wages. Congress widened coverage, temporarily adding part-time workers, independent contractors and others typically excluded. And for four months it gave everyone on jobless aid a large bonus: $600 a week.

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