Originally published by the West Virginia Charleston Gazette-Mail.
West Virginia families are struggling. One in seven adults in the state struggle with hunger. One in five households with children in the state reported that the kids weren’t eating enough because the family struggled to afford food.
The unemployment rate in West Virginia is still worse than it was following the recession of 2007 to 2009. Unemployment claims have skyrocketed for West Virginia women–they’ve increased by 138% for women in the last year, compared to 13% for men. Without bold Congressional action last year, things could have been far worse. But now is not the time for policymakers representing us to rest easy. Now is the time for them to finish the job by passing a bold relief package.
No West Virginian should experience the pain of hunger or go without adequate income for months because of a pandemic they aren’t responsible for. We know what needs to happen to end this needless suffering and ensure prosperity for the whole state and country, because Congress showed the way last year.
In March of 2020, Congress passed substantial relief measures through the CARES Act, which supported struggling families with one-time of up to $1,200 stimulus checks to many adults, an additional $500 for most children, and expanded, enhanced, extended unemployment assistance for millions of people, including a $600 per week boost. And it worked. These benefits reduced financial instability and poverty.
But for West Virginia and the nation, the help simply didn’t last long enough. While the pandemic raged, Congress allowed the $600 weekly unemployment boost to expire in July 2020 and didn’t send out additional stimulus checks that year. After that money ran out for many families in the fall, 8 million people were pushed into poverty. Congress passed another emergency relief bill in December 2020, but that was too little, too late.
The unemployment boosts and other provisions from the December bill will begin to expire in six weeks, and one-time relief checks were limited to $600. Recently the independent and nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that, without additional emergency spending, the unemployment rate will not approach pre-pandemic levels until 2026. Many experts estimate that we are roughly $2 trillion–about the size of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan–short of what we need to return the economy to the path it was on before the pandemic. This number may seem impossibly large, but that’s less than one-tenth of the country’s measured economic activity each year.
Without additional action, Congress would leave hundreds of thousands of West Virginians to face this continuing crisis on their own.
What should Congress do now? They should build on their own successes. The March 2020 CARES and Families First Coronavirus Acts provided money to help people take care of themselves and their families while governments and the private sector worked to get the virus under control. A Child Tax Credit overhaul could provide families with kids $300 a month and cut child poverty in half.
Regular cash payments through tax credits can help the more than one in three West Virginians who are struggling to meet their household expenses. State and local funding can help West Virginia close the $117 million revenue hole created since March 2020, prevent layoffs and budget cuts for schools and public health services. Unemployment benefits could allow millions of workers to maintain more of their income.
Paid sick leave can help protect community health by allowing people to take time off from work when they are sick and can; paid family and medical leave can provide working parents income when they are caring for children.
Additional food assistance resources could reduce stark racial disparities in accessing healthy food, as Senator Joe Manchin has championed. Additional public health funding from Congress can help West Virginia build on a successful vaccine rollout and address ongoing public health needs.
For the sake of West Virginia and the rest of the nation, Congress needs to go big to finish the job. Direct cash helped raise millions out of poverty in the first wave of the pandemic and helped families in West Virginia afford to make decisions based on their family’s and their own needs. The cost to doing nothing — hunger, hardship, and suffering — is just too big, and the risk of doing too much is both small and easy enough to address should we experience it.
Proposals like the president’s American Rescue Plan is up to the task. West Virginia families deserve nothing less.