Unemployment benefits for millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet lapsed at midnight on Saturday after President Donald Trump failed to sign a $900bn end-of-year Covid-19 relief and spending bill.
The proposal had been considered a done deal before Mr Trump raised objections.
His refusal to sign the bipartisan package could also force a federal government shutdown when money runs out at 12:01am Tuesday.
Mr Trump's lack of action on the bill will also lead to the expiration of eviction protections and put on hold a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theatres, along with money to help schools and vaccine distribution.
The president demanded larger Covid relief cheques and complained about “pork” spending – an Americanism which means that regions are attempting to secure funds which solely benefit their area rather than having a wider purpose.
“It’s a chess game and we are pawns,” said Lanetris Haines, a self-employed single mother of three in South Bend, Indiana, who was receiving a $129 weekly jobless benefit.
Washington has been reeling since Mr Trump threw the package into limbo despite sweeping approval in both houses of Congress – and after the White House assured Republican leaders that the president would support it.
Instead he has assailed the bill’s plan to provide $600 Covid relief cheques to most Americans — insisting it should be $2,000. House Republicans swiftly rejected that idea during a rare Christmas Eve session. But Mr Trump was not swayed.
On Saturday he tweeted:
President-elect Joe Biden urged Mr Trump to sign the bill as two federal programmes providing unemployment aid were set to expire on Saturday.
“It is the day after Christmas, and millions of families don’t know if they’ll be able to make ends meet because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an economic relief bill approved by Congress with an overwhelming and bipartisan majority,” Mr Biden said in a statement. He accused Trump of an “abdication of responsibility” that will have “devastating consequences.”
“I’ve been talking to people who are scared they’re going to be kicked out from their homes, during the Christmas holidays, and still might be if we don’t sign this bill,’’ said Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat.
Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, has calculated that 11 million people will lose aid from the programmes immediately; millions more will exhaust other unemployment benefits within weeks.
Andrew Stettner, an unemployment insurance expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, said the number may be closer to 14 million because joblessness has spiked since Thanksgiving.
Regional disparities in disbursement of aid
How and when people are affected by the lapse depends on the state they live in, the programme they are relying on and when they applied for benefits.
In some states people on regular unemployment insurance could continue to receive payments under a programme that extends benefits when the jobless rate surpasses a certain threshold, Mr Stettner said.
About 9.5 million people, however, rely on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programme that ran out on Saturday. This programme makes unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who are normally not eligible.
After receiving their last cheques, those recipients will not be able to file for more aid after Saturday, Mr Stettner said.
While payments could be received retroactively, any gap means more hardship and uncertainty for Americans who have already grappled with bureaucratic delays, often depleting much of their savings to stay afloat while waiting for payments to kick in.
They are people like Earl McCarthy, a father of four who lives in South Fulton, Georgia, and has been relying on unemployment since losing his job as a sales representative for a luxury senior living community. He said he would be left with no income by the second week of January if Mr Trump failed to sign the bill.
Mr McCarthy said he had already burnt through most of his savings as he waited five months to begin receiving his unemployment benefits. After leaving weekly messages with the unemployment agency, he contacted the South Fulton mayor’s office and then his state legislative representative to ask for help. He finally started getting payments in November.
“The entire experience was horrifying,” said McCarthy, who is receiving about $350 a week in unemployment insurance.
“For me, I shudder to think if I had not saved anything or had an emergency fund through those five months, where would we have been?” he said.
The bill Mr Trump rejected would have also activated a weekly $300 federal supplement to unemployment payments.
Trump continues with unsubstantiated election fraud quest
The president, meanwhile, has been spending his final days in office golfing and angrily tweeting as he refuses to accept his loss to Biden in the November 3 election.
On Saturday, he again lashed out at members of his own party for failing to join his quest to try to overturn the results of the election with baseless claims of mass voter fraud that have been repeatedly rejected by the courts. His seething stream of tweets, like this one, were given a disclaimer by Twitter.
He also berated the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and the FBI as he seemed to encourage his supporters to gather in Washington on January 6, the day Congress tallies the Electoral College vote. His rallying cry comes after a similar event last month descended into violence with multiple people being stabbed in the capital’s streets.