COVID-19 highlights — and intensifies — our mistreatment of the poor

COVID-19 highlights — and intensifies — our mistreatment of the poor
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The interaction of a raging pandemic and a deep recession are requiring government to take on numerous new tasks. Even more striking, it is asking us to reverse course on several important policies that have become well-entrenched over the years.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in efforts to protect our most vulnerable people. Protecting the poor requires reversing many principles central to our anti-poverty programs in ordinary times.

Over the years, we have relentlessly demanded that low-income people work. We steadily shrank the fraction of jobless workers that can receive unemployment compensation. We largely ended cash assistance for low-income families under the banner of “welfare reform.” We denied over a million unemployed childless adults food assistance based on their unemployment; the Trump administration wants to purge almost a million more under- and unemployed people who now get aid. The administration has even been encouraging states to deny unemployed people Medicaid.

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These policies reflect a lack of sympathy for people for whom periodic bouts of unemployment and underemployment are inevitable due to child care or transportation difficulties, intermittent physical or mental disabilities, or a simple lack of skills.

Yet in the midst of a pandemic, we desperately need people not to work. The very policies designed to keep tens of millions of people poised perpetually at the financial precipice, and therefore eager to work, put great pressure on them to disregard stay-at-home directives. Their desperate situation also means that they badly need help with their rent or mortgage payments. 

Our hostility toward assistance to low-income people has left us without the infrastructure we need to help. Neglect and deliberate efforts to make benefits less available have left state unemployment offices ill-equipped to process newly unemployed workers. Our highly fragmented and devolved low-income assistance programs have left us without any single agency equipped to get aid quickly to those most in need.

As a result, Congress turned to the Internal Revenue Service to provide short-term crisis aid, a role for which it is ill-suited. In particular, because the IRS is accustomed to determining income on an annual basis, it lacks the tools to identify people who have recently seen a sharp drop in their income.

Crisis response legislation to date would effectively deny urgent relief payments to millions who have not had enough earnings to be required to file a tax return in recent years.

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The Treasury Department has announced that some Social Security recipients eventually will qualify, but so far it is leaving out those receiving only Veterans Affairs or other disability payments. We should use information from those programs, as well as Medicaid and food assistance, to get urgent help to those whom the IRS is missing. More simply, we should provide a temporary increase in food assistance benefits as we did during the Great Recession and couple that with help making rent, mortgage, and utility payments.

Our single-minded focus on incentivizing work causes us to treat privacy and stable housing as privileges to be earned. Over the past half century, the prevalence of dilapidated housing has declined but the incidence of over-crowding has increased. Many low-income people are being asked to shelter in place in housing they share with many other people. The close quarters is reportedly leading to a sharp increase in domestic violence. And if one breaks isolation to seek work, all may become infected.

We have shifted people with severe disabilities from overcrowded state mental hospitals to overcrowded boarding homes and prisons. Large numbers of people remain homeless, with overcrowded shelters and congregate feeding sites their only respite from the street. In the best of times, they are at chronic risk of pneumonia.

All levels of government fail these people, but the federal government has been particularly quick to exclude marginalized people from its anti-poverty programs. The only hope these vulnerable people have is aid from state and local governments. But distributing soap in prisons, renting cheap motel rooms for the homeless to self-isolate, and providing grab-and-go meals to replace soup kitchens all take money, and state tax revenues are cratering.

The financial aid Congress has provided states so far has been woefully inadequate to make up for states’ revenue shortfalls, much less allow them to assist these populations facing extraordinary risk. Without new funding, not only will states be unable to reach out to the most vulnerable, they will have to make deep cuts in existing programs. This will deepen the recession.

Finally, we limit expenditures in anti-poverty programs by demanding paperwork that some low-income people will have difficulty navigating. The Treasury Department’s implementation of the relief legislation would require millions of people seeking emergency checks to file tax returns — even if they would not otherwise be required. This all but guarantees that a large fraction of the funds will go to tax preparation firms.

Given the vast sums the administration has won the right to dispense to the businesses of its choice — reportedly including four Trump hotels — clinging to policies designed to limit assistance to low-income people under radically different conditions is unconscionable.

Now more than ever, the most vulnerable among us deserve our compassion. They should not be bargaining chips in a maneuver to win even more generous rescue terms for favored corporations and their managers. And going forward, we should use this crisis as an opportunity to reconsider the harshness of our treatment of the unfortunate.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1