These programs could help 12 million Americans whose unemployment benefits run out in December

The U.S. is weeks away from a major Covid cliff – at the end of December, two unemployment programs, a moratorium on evictions and extended paid sick leave from the CARES Act expire.

Roughly 12 million Americans will lose jobless benefits in December, meaning more than 16 million will start 2021 with little to no aid available to them as the coronavirus pandemic continues, according to an analysis from the Century Foundation.

At the same time, Congress is still debating more coronavirus relief and remains divided over issues such as another round of stimulus checks and additional unemployment benefits.

Although it's possible a bill will be passed soon, Americans should prepare for a gap in aid, said Elizabeth Pancotti, a senior policy advisor at Employ America, a progressive think tank.

"It's very scary to tell people to prepare for that scenario" she said. "It's a worst-case scenario, but it's still a very possible one."

In the meantime, some states have passed measures to help residents. And, there are a few federal programs that will still be available after the end of the year to help those struggling with bills, food and housing.

Benefit programs still available

SNAP

Food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will continue next year, and so will boosted allotments given through emergency assistance.

"SNAP benefits will continue, they're an entitlement. That's a rare thing in safety-net world these days," said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy center at the Urban Institute. Still, the higher amounts will eventually run out without more funding, she said.

SNAP does have eligibility rules but no work requirement to receive aid, meaning that unemployed people may be able to get benefits. People can apply for SNAP through the state where they live.

TANF

Families with children or other dependents living at home may be eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which gives financial assistance and other support.

There are also eligibility requirements for TANF that may vary by state, according to Pancotti. For example, TANF legally includes a work requirement, although some states are overlooking it due to Covid. People should also apply for TANF at the state level.

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Housing assistance

Both a foreclosure and eviction moratorium expire at the end of the year, removing important housing protection for millions.

Homeowners experiencing pandemic-related financial hardship with federally or GSE-backed loans can request mortgage forbearance for up to 180 days by contacting their lender – the deadline for applying is Dec. 31. In forbearance, no additional fees, penalties or interest beyond scheduled amounts will be added.

Many renters will be in a precarious situation when the federal eviction moratorium lapses. Some states have their own eviction moratoriums in place which may help some.

Others may be able to apply for rental assistance through local programs, such as the Salvation Army. People who need rental or housing assistance should seek help from these programs as soon as possible, as they are few and far between, Employ America's Pancotti said.

Apply as soon as possible

To be sure, many of the programs that will continue through the end of the year will not be enough to address the extreme need in the U.S., according to Pancotti.

If you may be eligible for any of the federal programs that require an application, she said to send one now instead of waiting for unemployment benefits to expire. Many programs have a waiting period, so applying now could further protect you from a gap in aid.

"Applying yesterday was the right idea," she said.

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