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Families paying off rent, food, debts with child tax credit

NASHUA, N.H. • Christina Darling finally replaced her 2006 Chevrolet Equinox after it broke down several times while picking her children up from day care. But the 31-year-old mother of two was struggling to keep up with the car payments.

Brianne Walker desperately wanted to take her three children and two siblings camping for the first time but wasn’t sure how she could pay for it. After all, she was behind on her rent, and day care and grocery costs were adding up.

Then, the two women from New Hampshire got a surprise in their bank accounts this month. They qualified for the expanded child tax credit, part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Families on average are getting $423 this month; the Treasury Department estimates that 35.2 million families received payments in July.

“The additional money does help alleviate the pressure,” said Walker, 29, who took custody of her two siblings last year after her mother overdosed. The $800 credit will help make up for losses she incurred after quitting a kitchen design job to care for the five youngsters, ages 3 to 19.

Biden increased the amounts going to families and expanded it to include those whose income is so little they don’t owe taxes. The benefits begin to phase out at incomes of $75,000 for individuals, $112,500 for heads of household and $150,000 for married couples. Families with incomes up to $200,000 for individuals and $400,000 for married couples can still receive the previous $2,000 credit.

In the past, eligible families got a credit after filing their taxes either as a lump sum payment or a credit against taxes owed. But now six months of payments are being advanced monthly through the end of the year. A recipient receives the second half when they file their taxes. The credit is $3,600 annually for children under age 6 and $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17. Eligible families will receive $300 monthly for each child under 6 and $250 per older child.

Advocates argue the monthly payments make more sense for low-income families.

“One of the problems with the big check in a year, if your car broke six months before, that is a long time to wait,” said Michael Reinke, executive director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter, which serves many families making less than $26,000 a year.

“When people have money over a consistent period of time, it’s easier to make sure it’s going to the expenses you really need,” he said. “Sometimes, if you get it all at once, it’s hard to budget.”

Robin McKinney, co-founder and CEO of the CASH Campaign of Maryland, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that helps low-income residents file taxes, said the credit is providing people money in their pockets now, when they need it most.

“We know right now that peoples’ hours are down or they’re still struggling to get back to the same level of income that they had before, and this will create some stability for those families to know that over the next six months that they’re going to be getting this payment,” McKinney said.

If all the money goes out, the expectation is that could significantly reduce poverty – with one study estimating it could cut child poverty by 45%. And it comes at a time when unemployment benefits are being phased out and the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire Saturday.

The payments are also a test case of sorts. Biden ultimately would like to make them permanent – and the impact they have could go a long way to shaping that debate later this year.

“It infuses money into the family home,” said Suzanne Torregano, director of Family Services at Kingsley House in New Orleans, who estimated that 85%-90% of the parents the group serves are getting the monthly payments.

Still, some advocates argue the money may never reach the neediest because their incomes are so low they aren’t required to file a tax return, they don’t have a fixed address or bank account, or don’t have the internet savvy to apply.

“What we are finding is that homeless families … while many of them are eligible for the tax credit, they have significant barriers to obtaining it,” said Larry Seamans, president of FamilyAid Boston, which serves 900 families daily.

“We have some counter-intuitive struggles of families who may be unfamiliar with tax forms, tax laws and the fact that by filing a tax return, you can actually get money to support your family,” Seamans said.

“Many families ... are not on the tax rolls. They now have to find sufficient documentation to prove that they are eligible.”

Families who do receive the credit are mostly spending it on rent, child care and groceries, as well as catching up on cellphone and other bills. For Darling, the $550 she gets will go to car payments, more fresh produce and a babysitter so she can attend Nashua Board of Education meetings. She is running for a seat on the board. Eventually, she hopes to put money aside to save for a home with a yard.

“Every step closer we get to a livable wage is beneficial. That is money that gets turned around and spent on the betterment of my kids and myself,” said Darling, a housing resource coordinator who had been supplementing her $35,000-a-year salary with monthly visits to the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter’s food pantry.

McKinney, who is married with a 5-year-old son and qualifies for the tax credit, is getting $167 a month. She said it’s all going to help pay for child care, which costs $288 a week.

“Right now, it’s out-of-school time because it’s the summer, so people have to pay for camps and babysitting support so that the parents can go to work,” said McKinney, of Columbia, Maryland. “I know a lot of people who are like: ‘This money is coming at just the right time, because this summer is more expensive for me for child care.’”

Many families in higher-income brackets who receive less money are socking it away for things like a family trip, school supplies or Christmas gifts.

Carleigh Steele, who received several hundred dollars, said the money is giving her peace of mind a month after she moved into a house in Baltimore with the help of Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s sitting in my bank account for all the home-buying things that I need, and for the rainy day fund for my house – just to make sure that I can keep myself economically stable,” said Steele, who has a 6-year-old daughter.

Brianne Epps, a mother of four from Jackson, Mississippi, is using the money to pay bills but also to finance her dream of opening a soul food catering business. “It will help me, for one, to promote my catering business – to get that off the ground,” she said.

Molly Vigeant, of East Hartford, Connecticut, a 25-year-old single mother who works as a special needs paraprofessional in a high school, hopes to spend the money to repair or replace her car. But she’s had trouble accessing a portal aimed at helping applicants and hasn’t yet received anything.

“It doesn’t hurt yet,” she said of the delayed payment. “But, it’s a 20-year-old car with over 200,000 miles on it and I make 20 grand a year. A new one is not going to fall from the sky, when your debt-to-income ratio is garbage and you know you can’t finance a car.”

The 'gymternet': gymnastics' devoted, sometimes toxic fans

TOKYO Fresh off Tokyo’s competition floor, four Olympic gymnasts lined up for a press conference. A podcaster offered a question on behalf of what has become a potent voice in the small world of elite gymnastics.

“The gymternet would like know...” she began.

The athletes nodded in familiarity with the online collective of diehard gymnastics fans cranking into gear for the Olympics.

Many in this world have a love-hate relationship with their noisy, sometimes noxious, corner of the internet, where thousands of passionate fans celebrate the sport that most people pay attention to only in Olympic years.

But some within the community acknowledge that its hostile approach to outsiders and some athletes is self-defeating. They want people to love the sport as much as they do, but they mock those who don’t as “four-year-fans” and attack athletes they don’t like or uneducated newcomers who wander into their universe.

“I think the gymternet has a good heart. It’s a well-intentioned space,” said Jessica O’Beirne, a de facto spokeswoman for the collective through her podcast, GymCastic, which 25,000 people tune into each week.

“The irony, of course, is that it’s also super mean,” she said. “The gymternet is so willing to defend athletes from abuse, but not look at their own part as an abuser.”

Perfection is expected

O’Beirne started her podcast in 2012 because she didn’t like how mainstream media covered the sport. Women athletes were often infantilized and presented as objects. The gymternet is, in that, her ally. Unlike other sports enthusiasts, she said, people there care about more than winning or losing; they push for a change in a culture that for years allowed abuse to flourish unchecked.

Perfection is expected here – the ability to recite an intricate history of the sport, its skills and its point system – and any mistake is grounds for a full-throated roasting, even of the athletes actually doing the work. A gymnast once posted online that she’d just done a tricky skill called a Tkatchev, and the gymternet tore her apart. Her offense: she misspelled the word “Tkatchev.”

Every fall, every flat foot, is critiqued mercilessly by mostly anonymous commentators, who often use cutesy gymnastics puns as their twitter handles. Some athletes fall out of favor for voicing opinions outside of the gymternet’s liberal leanings.

Members sometimes wade into conspiracy. They analyze silent videos of athletes on the sidelines, reading meaning into every cock of an eyebrow or downturned lip, then they spread their assumption of the gymnast’s inner thoughts at fact. Others play doctor, diagnosing injury – even autism.

“It can be bullying,” said Lauren Hopkins, who runs a blog called The Gymternet that is so well regarded she received a media credential to cover the Olympics.

“I feel like they think they have more of a friendship with these athletes, having interacted with them online, than they actually do,” she said. “So stuff that you might say to your friends, to make fun of them in a joking way, they’ll say that same stuff to the athletes.”

Love and obsession

Both Hopkins and O’Beirne got their start as run-of-the-mill members of the gymternet. And like most, they grew up obsessed with the sport in pre-internet days, with little access to enjoy it directly and few others in their towns as interested as they were.

For some, their love of this sport is deep and personal. O’Beirne’s father was run over by a truck as a boy and lived in pain his whole life. He was introduced to gymnastics at military training, and it was the first exercise that took his discomfort away. He was in awe, and led his daughter to love it, too.

The gymternet was born among these devotees in the internet’s early days, on message boards where people searched for ways to watch gymnastics. Other sports like football or basketball were on TV all the time. But before YouTube, gymnastics was hard to find outside of the Olympics.

Scott Bregman remembers scouring the TV listings as boy in Kansas every week, hoping to see gymnastics. He rarely did.

Online, he discovered a club where people would copy VHS tapes and mail them to each other in exchange for a tape of a competition they’d never seen. He would copy tapes for hours, send them out and wait at the mailbox.

On these message boards, they also found each other. Their struggle just to watch the sport in those days, he thinks, is what now sets the gymternet apart from fans of mainstream sports, where all you have to do to find others like you is show up at a sports bar.

“We’re more protective of it,” he said, “because it feels like it’s maybe more like ours.”

The toxic fan base

Some call Bregman “the most beloved darling of the gymternet.” Many watched him grow into a champion collegiate gymnast. Now he works as a 00000ruggles with the toxic parts of the internet fan base.

The most vicious members are so committed to savaging athletes online, they sometimes avoid using their names so the athletes won’t block them. To bash current Olympian Sunisa Lee, for example, they started representing her nickname, Suni, as a series of emojis: a sun and a knee. But the online algorithm delivered these tweets to Lee – an 18-year-old from Minnesota who won the Olympic all-around title on Thursday – anyway.

Bregman interviewed her in May, and she told him the constant criticism was wearing on her.

“(W)e work so hard, and then people are just so quick to judge or criticize us,” she told him. “I feel like it just gets to us mentally, especially in the gym lately, like I’ve just been so insecure.”

The gymternet, some say, often chases off prospective fans. If a newbie unwittingly enters the gymternet by tweeting an unsupported opinion, members will often pounce, Hopkins says.

“How can we ever get the sport to be bigger if we’re constantly closing the door on anyone who has any desire to come in?” she wonders.

Walking a fine line

Emily Marver, known by her Twitter name Spanny Lee Tampson, found her way to the gymternet’s early iterations on the message boards in the 1990s. Her love for the sport started early. As far back as she can remember, she loved the sensation of being upside down. She’d hang from railings and terrify her mother.

She felt alone, then found all these people like her.

“I thought I was the biggest nerd out there. I wasn’t,” said Marver, now a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother. “I feel like I’ve grown up with these people.”

She was once part of what she calls the “cool mean kids.” The internet felt like a vacuum, like the targets of their ridicule were far away. Then she was tagged on a post mocking one of her heroes, 1996 Olympic gold medal-winner Dominique Moceanu. She got notified that Moceanu had blocked everyone in the discussion – including her.

“I was like, ‘My childhood hero just blocked me on Twitter because I’m part of this group,’” she said. “I was horrified to be associated with it, just pure shame.”

It caused Marver to reflect on prior posts. She found that she’d never been as funny as she thought.

The gymternet needs to do that now, she says. She considers herself its den mother, and she tries to remind people that they’re sitting at home while these athletes, often young women and girls, are performing hard, dangerous skills.

“There’s a fine line between wit and observational humor and just being mean,” Marver said. “And I think the gymternet really needs to locate where that line is.”

Especially now.

So far, the gymternet has defended American superstar Simone Biles since she withdrew from competition during the team finals. O’Beirne said its members are attacking anyone who criticizes Biles for stepping away amid mental health struggles.

But Marver said she has watched the gymternet turn on its own heroes before. Gabby Douglas, an Olympic champion in 2012 and 2016, was treated ruthlessly.

“I don’t want to say that they build you up just to knock you down,” Marver said. “But having seen them do that, it would be ignorant to say it couldn’t happen again.”

Biden push to vaccinate feds forces uncomfortable questions

WASHINGTON • President Joe Biden’s requirement for federal workers to reveal their COVID-19 vaccination status is likely to force uncomfortable questions not only at government agencies but at private companies as well.

Right now, there’s a lack of clear answers.

Getting the policy right will take time, and vary across government agencies. The same holds for private companies, for which the White House is trying to provide a guide. It’s not like there’s a cheat sheet. Nothing on this scale has been attempted before in the face of a virus morphing in real time to become a bigger threat.

“We developed a miracle vaccine in a very short period of time, and there has been a lot hesitancy from the government and from businesses to run with a top-down approach,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at the workforce consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Now we’ve reached a point where it’s become very clear the individual incentive people have to protect themselves has not been strong enough to protect the country, and we’re seeing the government take this first step.”

Biden’s plan for the federal workforce, announced Thursday, stopped short of a direct order for feds to roll up their sleeves.

Instead, workers will have to attest to whether they’re vaccinated. Although employees will not be required to produce a vaccination card, “attest” is a loaded word in the federal workplace, minutely governed by rules and regulations. It implies consequences for providing false or misleading information. How that will be enforced remains unclear, but employees who voluntarily provide valid proof of vaccination will likely settle potential questions upfront.

The unvaccinated will have to put up with regular testing, required masking and social distancing, and they will be barred from official travel. Similar rules will be applied to federal contractors.

Continual testing raises other issues. For most people, health insurance has been paying. But will that continue if someone refuses to be vaccinated and is not eligible for medical or religious exemptions?

Masking has been a perennially touchy subject. But how will agencies enforce a masking policy if not everyone is required to be vaccinated? Will supervisors patrol the cubicles with lists of the unvaccinated?

There are many reasons why translating Biden’s order to the workplace may not go smoothly. Government agencies tend to have their own unique cultures, and their missions run the gamut. Doctors at the National Institutes of Health are probably already vaccinated, but some law enforcement agents may be wary of getting a shot not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The largest union representing federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, already served notice it expects any changes to working conditions will be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”

As for the Pentagon, it’s been ordered to study how and when COVID-19 vaccines will become mandatory for military personnel. Service members are already required to get as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are based around the world.

Even as Biden laid out his federal plan, some companies like Google were already ahead, saying they will simply require vaccination. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest business organization, seconded Biden’s actions as “prudent steps to protect public health and our economic recovery.”

For public or private employees, the first and most important questions revolve around proving their vaccination status and qualifying for exceptions, said Jeff Hyman, a business author and recruitment expert.

“Are they going to take it on faith?” asked Hyman. There is no central database that records vaccinations.

“What is the exceptions policy?” he continued. “There have got to be exceptions for religious and medical reasons, and that asterisk is going to be really important.”

But if workers seek a religious exemption, will they have to submit a note from a clergyperson?

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says an employer must provide “reasonable accommodation” for medical or religious reasons “that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.”

But companies can legally require vaccination as a “condition of employment,” the Justice Department said in a recent opinion.

Biden is taking a risk here, said Hyman, but doing nothing in the face of rising cases driven by the aggressive delta variant was not an option.

“This is super-easy to second-guess because you only find out in hindsight if you were right,” Hyman said. “We’re not going to know for awhile whether this was the optimal decision, but at least he is doing something.”

News that the economy has surpassed its pre-pandemic size only underscores the significance of Biden’s move. More outbreaks and shutdowns could dampen hiring and production, creating a new political narrative for Republicans trying to regain control of Congress next year.

Then there’s the often delicate issue of workplace etiquette. How will unvaccinated employees interact with their peers who have gotten their shots? Will work units have to be split apart?

Challenger, the workforce consultant, said his company has developed a system for everyone to discreetly signal their comfort level with interaction during the workplace reentry. It involves wrist bands colored green, yellow and red.

Green means a person is comfortable with things going back to the way they were before. Red signals others to stay 6 feet away. Yellow is an in-between zone, implying some hesitancy about chumminess.

“This is such a novel situation, there are not a lot of best practices for us to follow,” he said.