As unemployment continues to rise, people across Indian Country and elsewhere in the U.S. are starting to see a little help come their way.
Federal relief payments began going out last month to millions of Americans, mostly to those who verified direct deposit on either their 2018 or 2019 federal taxes.
Many are using the money to cover essentials such as food, bills and rent during quarantine. Others are socking it away, or looking into safety nets like life insurance.
Jason and Stephanie Allison, Navajo, who run an Arizona financial service business, say the stimulus checks are a good place to start for people looking to save money or put their funds to work. They advise talking to a licensed investment professional to develop a good plan.
The payments are one-time, $1,200 sums to those who earn $75,000 or less per year. Married couples may receive up to $2,400 if their combined income is less than $150,000 per year while also getting an additional $500 per child.
On the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana, Diana Bigby, Nakoda, is using a portion of her payment to make improvements on her property, where she grows vegetables and keeps chickens and honey bees. The virus has her thinking about becoming more self-sustaining.
“It made me realize, one of these days we might not be able to leave [the] rez again to go get groceries,” Bigby said.
Meanwhile, those without bank accounts may have to wait weeks more to receive paper checks. And advocates are concerned that when the checks do come, there will be long lines at check-cashing businesses.
They're urging the federal government to use this time as an opportunity to get so-called unbanked Americans into the formal financial system.
‘My money was always going into savings’
Jessica Joaquin, Tohono O'odham, is among those who have already received their payment, and she knew exactly what to do with it.
Joaquin has been on a financial journey for the past two years, working her way out of debt — a goal she achieved at the end of March.
She was set on food and other essentials, so she decided to put most of her stimulus payment away.
"My money was never going to be anything to be extravagant about,” Joaquin said. “My money was always going to go into savings. Having that go into savings just gave me a little bit of an extra boost that I wasn’t expecting.”
Joaquin also plans to invest a bit in her at-home work station with a desk and small TV to be used as a second monitor.
Joaquin wears multiple hats working for O’odham Action News, a bi-weekly newspaper for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. She says these investments will help her be more organized and efficient after recently being notified she’d be working from home through at least the end of May.
“It’s money well-spent because it’s just gonna make my life easier right now.”
Life insurance among common inquiries
For many, talking finances can be a difficult subject to breach, and COVID-19 hasn’t made it any easier.
The Allisons said one of the main goals of their business — Dream Catcher Financial Strategies LLC, based in Fort Defiance, Arizona — is to educate Natives to understand concepts of financial literacy, from tax advantages and how the stock market plays a role in daily life to diversifying portfolios.
Amid the pandemic, Jason and Stephanie Allison have been fielding numerous calls each day from people and businesses all over Indian Country.
Two of the more common inquiries they receive have to do with life insurance and the stimulus checks. In regard to the former, Stephanie says they can approach the topic with cultural sensitivity and help people understand the basics of what that service provides.
“We talk about life insurance in a different way than non-indigenous people would be able to communicate,” Stephanie said. “A lot of these plans, a lot of people don't understand that a lot of these plans, if you go into them healthy, they'll be able to take advantage of the living benefits.”
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Jason added COVID-19 has made people face and question their mortality and push them to get personal affairs in order in case something happened.
“Those are the tough conversations, and I don't know how many tears we've shed with some of our folks who like, they're scared,” Jason said. “Shed tears of joy when they're like, ‘OK, good, I'm covered.’”
As far as the stimulus checks are concerned, Jason and Stephanie Allison have talked to a number of people who fall into three categories: those who spend it on essential items like rent, groceries and bills; those who want to invest or save it; and some who put it toward non-essentials.
As states look to begin loosening stay-at-home restrictions and members of Congress return to Washington, D.C., it’s possible another round of relief may be on its way.
For those who want to invest, the Allisons recommend talking to a licensed professional.
“The stimulus check is a good start, I think, for a lot of people to make small investments as far as financial concepts,” Jason said. “Make interests work for you.”
Becoming more self-sustaining
For Bigby, COVID-19 opened her eyes to what life would be like if she and her family couldn’t leave the reservation in north-central Montana, about eight miles from the main town hub.
“I mean, it could get bad — it's not right now, it's not like that,” she said. But “it just made me prepare. It opened my eyes a little bit more.”
That’s why she’s using some of her money to invest in her yard. Last year, Bigby started keeping honey bees and later added a garden area for vegetables. She also bought some chickens and wood to build a coop.
Bigby noted she’s always liked the idea of a simpler life. And with five kids, ages 2 to 19, she’s got plenty of help.
While she has been able to work from home, Bigby’s husband is considered an essential worker in his job with the commodities program delivering food.
They take precautions and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when he comes home, especially since they also live with an elderly grandmother.
The family also takes extra safety measures when taking the 40-plus mile drive to Havre, the nearest “big” city to the reservation, to get bulk items.
Bigby doesn’t even entertain the thought of going to Walmart anymore. “There's too many people in Walmart for me,” she says.
She understands the devastation that bringing home the virus could cause.
“We kind of kick it up a notch, and are super aware of everything because there has been just one case there (in Hill county),” Bigby said.
In such a small community, even just one more new case “could affect so many people.”
Long lines expected at check-cashing stores
While millions have received their payment through direct deposit, millions of others without traditional bank accounts must wait weeks for paper checks.
Banking is a social justice issue with the potential to widen America’s racial wealth gap, said Cy Richardson, vice president of the National Urban League.
Advocates say the federal government should use the pandemic payments as an opportunity to bring more people into the banking system via Bank On accounts, which are FDIC insured, cost $5 or less a month and do not allow overdrafts or charge insufficient-fund fees, The Associated Press reported. The accounts can be used for direct deposit, purchases and paying bills.
Otherwise, long lines at check-cashing stores could stretch into the fall and pose dangers to public health.
“There’s now a health component to being unbanked — people are going to have to take literal risks with their health, in order to receive and then spend these dollars,” said Jonathan Mintz, CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which aims to get underserved Americans set up with affordable bank accounts.
Approximately 8.4 million U.S. households were considered “unbanked” in 2017, meaning no one in the household had an account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Another 24.2 million households were “underbanked,” meaning they might have a bank account but members of the household also used an alternative financial service for money orders, check cashing, international remittances, payday loans and pawn shop loans, often at high costs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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