by Samuel Murray, columnist
America is in an uncomfortable situation for unemployment, stimulus relief, for substantive policy action. Congress is back from Thanksgiving recess before another Christmas recess, set to formally reconvene again on January 3. Newly elected Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona was recently sworn in the Senate, and we continue to await the outcome of the Georgia special election runoff on January 5. This runoff may allow Democrats to take control of the Senate, allowing for a unified government, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any party-line 50-50 vote ties, given her constitutional duty as President of the Senate. This complicated political standoff is important to note, as it may shape how fast relief may come, or if it will come at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on all walks of life, with millions contracting the virus and an ever-rising death toll that approaches a staggering daily loss of life on the scale of 9/11. One thing is for certain, the United States government has failed to not only adequately address the rapid spread of disease and death in the nation, but to provide a social safety net for all Americans.
With just one $1,200 check arriving for Americans in early April, unemployment assistance running out in weeks, small business loan aid being greatly exploited by the wealthy, and a greedy bailout to airlines, all signs point toward a prioritization of stock growth over human life. Both parties are guilty of this.
The initial stimulus bill was passed during the early stages of our “lockdown,” and lawmakers can only partially be faulted for not predicting the scale and scope of problems that would arise out of this pandemic. It is revealing of the bill’s short-sightedness, particularly with only one direct payment included. Did many of us conceive of social distancing lasting more than two months in the beginning? We now foresee it lasting towards the end of summer 2021, contingent upon a successful vaccination program and compliance among the public. However, it is the fault of lawmakers for not passing any subsequent relief bills as the pandemic continues to rage. After nearly eight months, many Americans have long forgotten the government’s involvement in late March and early April.
To put the past stimulus into context, $1,200 would cover the median price of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in 2019, however this figure fails to account for a yearly increase. Rent prices vary incredibly depending on region, rental size, and more, but this still exemplifies how little this stimulus payment could do to improve the lives of everyday Americans. This also fails to encompass any additional cost of living, food, heat/cooling, and uniquely American costs such as medical debt.
It is the fault of all political leaders that no such subsequent stimulus relief has been passed, no rental assistance, direct payments, loan forgiveness, reauthorization of unemployment benefits: nothing. While Democrats had passed a bill in the House months ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel has refused to do anything but propose a hollow copy of the bill. Both parties are at fault for failing negotiations while hundreds of thousands have died, millions continue to be unemployed, and countless more teeter on the edge of financial insecurity.
Despite this troubling policy predicament, there is some hope coming, though it seems minimal at best. Stimulus negotiations have begun again in the Senate with a bill backed by President-elect Joe Biden that would include a reauthorization of expanded unemployment payments up to $300 weekly, vaccine distribution funds, small business aid, and more, though it is still not currently drafted. Senator Bernie Sanders has recently announced his opposition to the effort, as the bill provides no direct payments and includes a “liability shield” for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Senator Sanders makes an excellent point, and it is disappointing a half-hearted relief bill is progressing. But nearly 8 months into the pandemic, any relief is better than no relief.
It has been found that direct payments to citizens during financial crises are effective in long-term poverty reduction, lowering inequality, and lowering mortality. Our northern neighbor Canada pushed a much stronger stimulus program, offering four months of $2,000 payments to its citizens who suffered a job loss or loss of income during this time. This is not only more of a longer-term stability program, but simply offers a greater payment to their citizens monthly to account for cost of living outside of payments to landlords, even including currency conversions. Canada is in a better position with a social safety net that includes healthcare for all, minimal tuition debt, and generally better unemployment and low-income assistance programs than the United States. This should emphasize even more the importance of stimulus assistance in the United States.
Congress must pass a comprehensive stimulus package that will enhance the quality of life of all Americans during the pandemic and elevate those who are in serious danger of deep poverty or homelessness during this public health crisis. Direct monthly payments, a freeze on rent, mortgage and eviction, more loans for small businesses, reviving increased unemployment benefits, student loan forgiveness, among other provisions must be included in the next relief bill. This is unlikely to come at the very least until the Biden administration takes control, even less certain if the Senate holds a Republican majority. In the meantime, Congress should vote to pass something to bailout the American people and not corporations, instead of continuing pointless partisan battles. We must hope that political capital on coronavirus relief is not exhausted if the current bill under consideration passes, so that an additional progressive alternative can be signed by President Biden. Now is not the time to play politics – the lives and well-being of all Americans are on the line, during the world’s worst public health crisis since 1918. Our leaders need to act like it.
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