BETHESDA, United States (AFP) -- As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the United States, Keith managed to keep his job in financial services, but his income dried up as commissions grew scarce.
Suddenly struggling financially, Keith began relying on meals handed out by a charity in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington known for the wealth of which the 52-year-old now finds himself bereft.
"We try to save what we can,” Keith, well-dressed in a red-striped polo shirt, told AFP on condition of anonymity. "I don’t want to take more resources than I need. If I don’t have to come every week I won’t.”
Eight million more people have been driven into poverty as the United States struggles with the world’s biggest coronavirus outbreak -- triggering tens of millions of layoffs and a sharp contraction in growth.
With a week to go before the November 3 election, it remains to be seen whether the dire state of the world’s largest economy will help tip the vote from President Donald Trump in favor of challenger Joe Biden.
But with the effects of trillions of dollars in stimulus early in the pandemic fast wearing off, there is little doubt the U.S. middle class is in a perilous situation.
"This is the first time I came here to ask for food but I have no choice,” said 40-year-old Joey, who started picking up meals from the charity in Bethesda after losing his job at a nursing home in April, and did not give his last name.
Located just north of the capital, suburban Montgomery County in the state of Maryland is one of the richest areas in the U.S. but even in towns like Bethesda, there are stark gaps in wealth.
Anne Derse, deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which runs its own free meal program, said there were 65,000 people who were food insecure before the pandemic. The figure has now grown to 95,000.
"As economic conditions do not improve, it’s continuing to grow,” she said.
At their meal program, the church’s volunteers are receiving almost twice as many families in a given day than expected, and often run out of food in less than an hour.
"Some people are really in need right now. One of them said, ‘I never thought I would have to do this. Never thought I’d be in it. But that’s the impact of the global pandemic,’” Derse said.
At the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves a wide swath of Washington and its suburbs, President and CEO Radha Muthiah said the number of people receiving aid totaled 400,000 before the pandemic, but has now grown to as many as 650,000.
Demand has increased the most in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, two areas normally considered wealthy but where Muthiah says layoffs have left people suddenly struggling to afford groceries.
"Many of the people who call are now telling us they never had to ask for food before because they had a paycheck, or someone else in their household had a paycheck, but now they’ve lost that paycheck or they’re working fewer hours,” she said.
Among the people picking up food assistance are former volunteers or donors who are in need themselves.
"Now they’re on the other side of the line,” Muthiah said.
As the pandemic intensified, the U.S. Congress passed measures totaling $3 trillion to blunt its impacts, including expanded unemployment payments and loans and grants to small businesses to prevent layoffs.
A recent Columbia University study found that the aid was so effective it actually pushed the poverty rate further down from the 10.5 percent the Census Bureau recorded in 2019, its lowest level in 60 years.
But much of that aid has lapsed in recent months, and the study found that the number of people facing poverty has now increased by eight million compared to the 34 million recorded in 2019.
"If we want to see lower levels of poverty than we have right now, (and) we want fewer families experiencing food insecurity or fewer families struggling to pay their rent, then it’s quite important that some kind of stimulus is passed as soon as possible,” said Zach Parolin, who led the study for the university.
Despite months of negotiations, lawmakers in Washington have failed to agree on whether to renew the expired benefits, and appear unlikely to do so before the election.
"Even if we’ve got a vaccine, the economic dislocation is not supposed to go away overnight,” said John Ross, who heads the men’s ministry at St. John’s.