Congress must pass robust COVID relief; failure is not an option

Congress must pass robust COVID relief; failure is not an option

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There has never been a more urgent time for Congress to step up and pass a relief package that acknowledges the breadth and depth of the hardships that North Carolinians and millions across the country are facing.

Last week, after months of stalled negotiations, the U.S. Senate put forth a COVID relief bill that cut in half what Senate leaders had agreed to spend as of early August. It was, in effect, an almost empty gesture toward the need for aid to address hunger, job losses, the risk of eviction, and more.

Predictably, the bill failed to garner enough votes to pass. What’s worse is that experts on Capitol Hill now agree that it is unlikely that a relief bill will be passed in the remainder of the year after Congress goes home at the end of the month.

This political failure comes at a moment of dire human need. Seventeen percent of North Carolina adults living with children (460,000 people) reported that their children were not eating enough because their household could not afford sufficient food, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey. North Carolinians are struggling to meet the most basic needs of their children, and this trend will continue so long as Congress fails to pass meaningful relief.

The Pandemic-EBT program, created through the federal CARES Act, supplants the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch program for qualifying students by instead providing electronic benefits for families to purchase food for their household. This new program has provided crucial nutrition assistance to millions of school-aged children – many of whom are not eligible for SNAP (aka Food Stamps) – to ensure that they can still receive meals while they are learning from home.

Unfortunately, Congress has failed to renew this vital program beyond September when it is scheduled to expire and, in so doing, failed to prioritize the needs of millions of North Carolina students, many of whose only balanced meal each day was delivered at school prior to the pandemic.

At the same time, the percentage of SNAP participants in North Carolina increased by 20 percent from February to August of this year – a growth in demand that continues to rise according to a recent analysis of state administrative data. In response, hunger advocates have been calling on Congress for months to implement a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, which would increase the benefit by about $25 per person per month, helping to ensure that families can put food on the table. Thus far, however, the calls have gone unheeded.

Approximately one-in-four North Carolina renters reported that they had not paid their last month’s rent on time or deferred payment in July. While federal actions — including the temporary ban on evictions by Congress that expired in July — have helped delay many evictions, these measures do not go far enough. Indeed, housing researchers estimate that as many as 1.2 million North Carolinians are at risk of eviction in the absence of an intervention that includes a nationwide eviction moratorium and significant rental assistance.

For nearly 600,000 North Carolina workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, unemployment insurance (UI) benefits have been critical for ensuring that families can meet their basic needs. However, enhanced federal UI benefits, another provision in the federal CARES Act, expired in August and North Carolina workers have been particularly hard hit by the loss of federal support since the state UI system provides so little in wage replacement. Extending UI benefits at the federal level is critical for sustaining the well-being of families through this crisis and will be key in supporting the recovery during the eventual aftermath of the crisis.

The bottom line: The devastating hardships people are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic are preventable.

There is no doubt that these public health and economic crises have caused tremendous challenges for North Carolinians. Yet the failure of our elected leaders to pass meaningful legislation that mitigates these hardships further harms the millions of people enduring them.

Congress has the unique power to pass a COVID relief package that can reach each community across North Carolina and across the nation, but there is an obvious unwillingness to think boldly. As the weeks tick by, this unconscionable inaction will continue to take an ever-more-devastating toll on individuals and families across North Carolina and the nation.

Suzy Khachaturyan, MSW, MPH, is a Policy Analyst at the NC Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.