It should not take a pandemic for Congress to care about the poor
The coronavirus laid bare poverty like few events in our history, touching nearly every family and every community across the country. For a brief moment, it did what decades of economic hardship endured by millions of Americans shamefully could not. It mobilized action in Congress. The legislative response was a welcome departure from the indifference that has defined federal policy on poverty. But Americans who face constant economic hardship might wonder about the timing.
As a Capitol Hill aide focused on economic policy, the flurry of activity in those early days of the pandemic was striking. President Trump, a month after sending a budget to Congress that gutted housing assistance and Medicaid, endorsed cash payments for lower income Americans, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the designated emissary for Senate Republicans, spoke openly about spending trillions of dollars. Incoming emails and texts from aides to Senate Republicans assured that when it came to emergency relief, nothing was off the table.
The Cares Act, while short of what Democrats in Congress insisted was needed, included a massive expansion of unemployment compensation, billions of dollars in emergency food assistance, and direct checks of up to $1,200 for millions of Americans. Statements by the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill had explained why this time was different. They simply had to act. After all, they said, how could they abandon Americans who were now struggling through no fault of their own?
But poverty and economic hardship are nothing new. Last year, before the coronavirus swept the world, one in eight Americans experienced poverty. Millions more, many of whom work full time jobs, said they would need to sell something or borrow from friends simply to cover a $400 emergency. Residents of areas such as Flint in Michigan and Cancer Alley in Louisiana have been exposed to poisoned water and air for decades, contributing to a cruel endless cycle of health and economic insecurity.
For all these Americans, whether they are born into multiple generations of poverty, victims of a broken justice system, or just plain unlucky, their economic status is no more the result of a personal failure than it is for those Americans whose lives have been unexpectedly upended by the coronavirus. But our policies have failed them over time, a byproduct of budget cuts, partisan fighting, and systemic racism.
Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps. Research has found that benefits are so inadequate, at $1.40 per meal, that kids in these households perform worse on standardized tests at the end of the month as their caloric intake dwindles, with scores only recovering after benefits are received. Moreover, despite evidence which links poverty with slower brain development, reduced earnings, and worse health outcomes, a family earning the federal minimum wage receives a smaller child tax credit than a family making $400,000.
As Congress contemplates another package to address the pandemic, the flicker of bipartisan interest in assisting our most vulnerable has faded as quickly as it first appeared in the spring. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissed the idea of targeted support to struggling communities of color, while Trump has prioritized a tax cut on the capital gains of wealthy investors over a second round of cash payments to struggling Americans. The good faith emails and texts from aides to Senate Republicans, which came so readily over the spring, have now largely ceased.
But I remain hopeful. These last several months, with the jolt of weekly unemployment claims and visuals of lines at food banks, have exposed Americans and their elected representatives to the sad reality of poverty. People who have never before interacted with the federal safety net are doing so in droves, including over 30 million workers who have filed for unemployment assistance, and millions more who have received cash payments to cover basic expenses such as food and rent.
These individuals have witnessed the federal government take action at a time of extraordinary need. One can only hope that their experience will contribute to a new coalition and commitment to combating poverty by our leaders in Washington that is no less ambitious for times of relative abundance than it is in response to a devastating pandemic.
At some point, we will emerge from the darkness of the coronavirus crisis. When we do, we will have a chance to rebuild our nation with a foundation of empathy that has been missing from our policies. Most of us will outlive this pandemic. The question is if our compassion can as well.
Chad Maisel is a staff economic policy adviser for Senator Cory Booker.
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