BY MIKE LUDWIG
More than half of households in the United States are not “very confident” that they can afford to put food on the table as the holidays approach, according to federal Census data. Meanwhile, what remains of federal pandemic relief programs is set to expire before the end of year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far refused to take up a $2.2 trillion economic relief package passed by Democrats months ago, even after Democrats attempted to compromise with Republicans and lowered the price tag by $1.2 trillion. If Congress fails to act, an estimated 12 million workers will lose federal emergency unemployment benefits when they expire on December 26 — on top of the 4.6 million who will have exhausted their benefits before then, according to the Century Foundation.
TERRIFYING NEW PHASE OF PANDEMIC
The COVID-19 pandemic has entered a terrifying phase in recent weeks, forcing some state and local governments to issue stay-at-home orders while others refuse to impose serious mitigations despite spikes in cases and hospitalizations. The U.S. has reported an average 162,816 new cases each day over the past week, a 77 percent increase from the daily average two weeks ago, according to the COVID trackers at The New York Times. Deaths surpassed 250,000 last Thursday.
“We have had one million cases documented over the past week, our rate of rise is higher than it even was in the summer; we have hospitalizations going up 25 percent week over week,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, in an interview with CNN on Thursday.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high as cities and states stare down another round of lockdowns, with 2.2 million people filing new unemployment claims over the past two weeks, according to the Economic Policy Institute. State unemployment benefits are paid for 26 weeks, but the pandemic has gone on much longer than that, leaving millions of people dependent on the two federal unemployment programs established by the first pandemic relief package passed in March. These programs are set to expire the day after Christmas.
FAMILIES ON FINANCIAL CLIFF
Millions of families are sitting on a fiscal cliff: 56 percent of households are not “very confident” that they will be able to afford enough food in the next four weeks, according to federal data collected in late October. The Center for Budget and Policy priorities estimates that, right now, up to 11 million children live in households that could not afford enough to eat over the past week, and 40 percent of children live in a household that is either food insecure or behind on rent.
When people struggle to afford basic needs, their spending on non-essentials such as holiday gifts plummets, further slowing an already sluggish economic recovery as the pandemic takes a turn for the worst.
Meanwhile, Congress remains at an impasse over a second pandemic relief bill. The White House has backed out of negotiations as President Donald Trump remains fixated on spreading disinformation and attempting to overturn the election he lost to President-elect Joe Biden.
With two Republican Senate seats at risk in an upcoming runoff in Georgia, McConnell has said Congress should pass another stimulus, but Republicans are reportedly sticking to a $500 billion proposal. Democrats say much more is needed, including another round of stimulus checks and support for state and local governments struggling on the front lines of the pandemic.
COME BACK TO THE TABLE
In a letter to McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer implored the GOP to return to the negotiating table and come to a COVID relief agreement to “crush the virus and save American lives.”
“Earlier this year during negotiations with Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin and Chief of Staff [Mark] Meadows, we agreed to compromise on a relief package and lowered our request by $1.2 trillion,” they wrote. “Since that time, you have lowered your proposal from $1 trillion to $500 billion, despite the consensus from economists and experts that the country requires a much larger injection of aid.”
Indeed, financial analysts say relief proposals offered by Democrats would allow for the most economic recovery. A new international analysis by the Institute for New Economic Thinking found countries such as South Korea and New Zealand that focused on lockdowns early on in the pandemic, rather than preserving their economies, have gained control over the virus and are now seeing their economies grow, in contrast with the dire economic circumstances currently in the U.S.
Reflecting Trump’s view of the pandemic, much of the GOP appears unphased as the nation lunges toward a fiscal cliff.
Promising news that a COVID-19 vaccine is on the way may be buoying hopes among Republicans that an easy fix to the pandemic is on the horizon. However, there are growing concerns that state governments lack the resources necessary to effectively distribute a vaccine. States need at least $6 to $8 billion to distribute a vaccine, and to date only $200 million has been allocated for vaccine preparedness, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Schumer announced late last week that McConnell had agreed to restart negotiations with Democrats, although he offered few other details, according to reports. Democrats and Republicans must agree on a government spending package by December 11 to avoid a government shutdown. If they don’t agree on pandemic relief as well, millions of their constituents will be struggling to afford food — not to mention rent, medical bills and other expenses — by the end of the year.
(Mike Ludwig is a staff reporter at Truthout and a contributor to the Truthout anthology, “Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?”)