Commentary

Latest COVID-19 package contains necessary relief, but Congress must do more

January 12, 2021 12:20 am

Food distribution. Photo by Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance.

When Congress finally passed a pandemic relief bill, it made a down payment on recovery. As overdue as it is, the package provides badly needed, short-term aid as the COVID-19 virus surges and the recession lingers. In coming months, Congress must do much more.

At first, federal lawmakers responded swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, pumping $2.7 trillion into the economy at the legislative speed of lightning. As the winter of 2020 turned to spring, Congress passed major bills that allowed people to get health care, food and some money to pay for necessities, bills and rent. The legislation expanded and boosted unemployment insurance for the millions who suddenly lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

It wasn’t enough. In late spring, people kept losing their jobs, getting sick and dying. The federal House of Representatives passed another comprehensive relief bill, the HEROES Act. Senate Republican leadership refused to consider it. As illness surged at Christmas, lawmakers finally passed a much smaller federal relief bill, a temporary patch that will help for the next few months but will not take us to recovery. Some major provisions are outlined below.

Financial help to working people and families: The bill extends major federal unemployment programs under the CARES Act to March 14 and reinstates the supplemental benefit available until late July, though at $300 a week: half the amount provided under the CARES Act. Lawmakers will send $600 federal stimulus checks to individuals earning up to $75,000 (married couples, up to $150,000) and $600 for each dependent child. This will help families with bills, rent or mortgage payments and other necessities. The bill also allows working families who were laid off or lost income in the recession to maintain their Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit by using their 2019 income level for 2020 tax filings.

Funds to fight the pandemic: The legislation provides nearly $70 billion for a range of public health measures, including purchase and distribution of vaccines as well as testing, tracing, surveillance and monitoring of the COVID-19 virus. It increases funds for hospitals that care for those without insurance and boosts some payments to rural community health centers and federally qualified health centers.

Keeps a roof over people’s heads and food in their bellies: The bill extends the moratorium that prevent landlords from evicting renters to January 31 and provides funds to help pay back rent. Ohio is expected to get $778 million to help up to 400,000 renters who face eviction in the pandemic recession. It also boosts SNAP benefits by 15% through June. On average, each person would get $25 a month. In Columbus, that’s a weekly gallon of milk, dozen eggs and bag of potatoes.

Resources for schools, colleges, universities and students: The bill gives schools money to make up upgrades that will slow the virus’s spread, like improved HVAC systems. It also provides extra support to students who need extra help to make up for lost learning. It provides funding for higher education institutions and direct relief for students. The package also expands the Pell Grant program to incarcerated people and restores Pell eligibility for students who were defrauded by their colleges.

Fewer protections for working people who get sick: The bill weakens the mandate that employers give people paid time off if they get sick during the pandemic. Instead, Congress is encouraging employers to provide paid sick time by offering another calendar quarter (three months) of tax credits if they do so — voluntarily — under certain circumstances.

Helps keep child care providers afloat: It allocates $10 billion for child care providers, who are essential to workers and employers alike. National leaders called for $50 billion. Ohio stands to receive $336 million through the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

Funds for infrastructure: Legislators of both parties hailed the allocation of $35 billion for wind, solar and other clean energy projects as the key to creating jobs of the future. They also provided $7 billion to expand high-speed internet connections in places without adequate broadband service and additional funds for public transit agencies, both urban and rural.

The takeaway: This latest federal relief bill includes essential resources, but it’s just a step, not a bridge, to recovery. Lawmakers let the most important measures expire long before the vaccine will provide widespread protection. They left out badly-needed aid for state and local governments, extending the timeframe for using tightly restricted aid provided earlier but failing to help with gaping budget shortfalls. Many essential programs — including Medicaid, which looms large in state budgets — face deep cuts, a dangerous threat in a pandemic. While they added new relief for businesses through a renewal of Paycheck Protection Program loans, they also included new tax breaks that will harm state budgets and in Ohio will benefit only the most affluent business owners.

The 117th Congress must work with the Biden Administration and quickly pass another, more comprehensive federal relief bill that is big enough and will last long enough to support recovery for all people, in all communities, throughout the nation.

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Wendy Patton
Wendy Patton

Wendy Patton is the team leader for the fiscal project of the State Priorities Partnership, which is affiliated with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Prior to joining Policy Matters Ohio in 2009, Wendy served as an executive assistant for economic development for Governor Ted Strickland, as a deputy director of business development for the Ohio Department of Development, as a vice president for the Columbus Urban Growth Corporation and as a program coordinator for the Ohio Employee Ownership Center. She worked with AFSCME international as an economic policy analyst, serving 13 states in tax and budget policy and forecasting revenues for collective bargaining. She has written about public finance, regional development, workforce training, steel and automobile supply chain configuration. Wendy has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of California at Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University.

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