WASHINGTON — It’s too common of an experience in America today to have come a hair’s breadth away from homelessness, rescued at the last-minute by enhanced unemployment benefits or a COVID-19 relief stimulus check.
Data suggest that 40 million Americans were laid off during the height of the pandemic. These experiences will leave a mark on individuals, families and the national cultural memory, urging all of us to demand political action toward lasting economic stability.
I certainly won’t forget my own recent economic travails. It wasn’t a good time to survive on a career in the arts or freelance labor.
During the pandemic, so many businesses reigned in the purse strings, cutting down on their expenditures on the kind of writing, proofreading and advertising assignments that I depend upon for my income. I was fortunate enough to make the rent payment, but utility payments in the winter months can cost just as much as rent and the bills added up.
In New Mexico, however, the governor’s moratorium on both evictions and utilities shutoffs saved me. I have doubts I could have paid my heating bills from October to February and survived the winter if not for those moratoriums.
By January, I was more than $2,000 in debt. But I received a $1,400 stimulus check payment, which helped pay the gas, electric and water bills.
The relevant word here is helped. I am still paying off the full amount.
But at least I don’t expect to be dragged under.
For that, I can thank President Joe Biden.
Several months later, I received Biden’s letter congratulating Congress for passing the American Rescue Plan, which, Biden wrote, would “help get millions of Americans through this crisis.” Biden noted in his official missive that alongside the $1,400 direct deposit, the American Rescue Plan also included aid for small businesses and expanded tax credits for individuals and families.
“When I took office, I promised the American people that help was on its way. The American Rescue Act makes good on that promise,” Biden wrote. He then confides, like a personal whispered aside to every cash-strapped recipient, “I want to be sure you receive all the benefits you are entitled to.”
He ended with the kind of triumphant flourishes looking forward to a brighter future, which we have all heard before but that I find I still need to hear, like “Amen” after a sermon: “I truly believe there is nothing we can’t do as a nation, as long as we do it together.”
I agree that the policies enacted under the American Rescue Act spared millions of lives from immediate catastrophe. But I still don’t believe we’re fulfilling the mandate of a nation “where there is nothing we can’t do” with these short-term solutions.
We need to respond in ways that acknowledge that the pandemic has not created catastrophes so much as it revealed that we’re a nation living one step away from massive penury in which the majority of Americans are subject to illness, joblessness or unexpected expenses on a daily basis.
We can’t rely on solutions that help for just today, only to leave people hanging on a thin thread until the next catastrophe. An example of short-sightedness would be letting the expanded earned income tax credit and the expanded child tax credit provisions expire after one year.
These payments will potentially lift millions out of poverty and protect the middle class. Funds will be dispersed on a monthly rather than a yearly basis, so that families can take care of immediate household economic needs and even save some for their future. But under the American Rescue Act these provisions are only funded through 2021 and they leave out more than a million immigrants without Social Security numbers.
Families with children suffered substantial economic woes long before the pandemic. The proof is that the United States — one of the richest countries in the world — is consistently listed among the nations with the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world.
That’s in part because we spend too little on our social safety net. Some studies say the United States spends proportionately less on public funding than any other country. Making consistent cash assistance to low-income families permanent and more inclusive will stabilize volatile incomes, ease financial planning, lift up disenfranchised communities, and improve the quality of life and opportunities for millions of people.
I thank President Biden and Congress for the assistance given to me as a single adult heading my household through the expanded earned income tax credit. However, Congress must appreciate that this is neither the first time I — nor millions of working Americans — have faced unexpected near-financial ruin. I am among the one-third of Americans who say that an unexpected expense of $400 or more would put them in a difficult financial situation.
All families deserve financial stability that can help them thrive long term. A permanent safety net in the form of guaranteed income could get us there. Thanks to widespread financial malaise and an understanding that too many of us are vulnerable while rich CEOs become richer, this idea is only becoming more politically popular.
The time to push for a permanent expanded child tax credit and a guaranteed income is now. As Biden says, “There is nothing we can’t do as a nation, if we do it together.”
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington Jr. is communications fellow for Washington-based Community Change. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.