On March 11, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act which will provide direct assistance to individuals and families (including a child allowance for low- and moderate-income families), continuation of unemployment benefits, funds to states and localities, and financial support for vaccinations and schools.
The hardships that COVID has caused are well-known. In the District, 10 percent of adults reported that their household did not have enough food last month; 15 percent of renters reported that they were behind on rent; and 28 percent of adults in the District (almost 150,000) reported that they were having difficulty covering normal household expenses. And we also know that in the District -- as in the rest of the country -- much of the economic and health burdens of this pandemic have been concentrated in Black and Brown communities that were already bearing the brunt of systemic racism and structural inequities.
One piece of legislation cannot undo the effects of this pandemic (which have highlighted all of the ways that the District and the country were already unequal). However, to quote our friends from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the American Rescue Plan Act “is a landmark achievement, cutting child poverty in half and making bold investments to prevent hunger, evictions, sickness, and prolonged job loss.” Among the provisions that will particularly help Legal Aid’s client community:
- Extension of Unemployment Benefits Through September 6. Since the start of the pandemic, about 178,000 District workers have filed for unemployment benefits. Since March 1, 1,705 workers have filed such claims. The extension of standard and pandemic-related unemployment benefits (as well as the $300 weekly benefits supplement) will provide great relief to the many individuals and families who are depending on these benefits while they try to find other work.
- Financial Assistance for Families with Children and Adults who are not Living with Children Through Expanded Tax Credits and Stimulus Payments. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Act’s expansion of the child tax credit will benefit 76 percent of children in the District, raising 8,000 District kids above the poverty line. And the expanded EITC payments will benefit 33,000 Adults who are not living with minor children.
- Extension of Food Assistance. The American Rescue Plan will extend through September a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, allow the District to continue to provide Pandemic EBT benefits (which provides funds for parents whose children cannot attend in-person school or child care to buy food to replace the meals that children would have received in these settings), and fund investments in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutritional program.
- Expansion of Health Assistance. In addition to making coverage purchased through DC’s Health Care Exchange more affordable, the Act also provides greater assistance through Medicaid to support people who are elderly or living with disabilities in their communities (rather than nursing homes).
- Housing Assistance. The Act will provide an additional $50 billion in housing assistance nationwide, including over $27 billion in rental assistance to tenants who are behind on their rent due to COVID, $5 billion for additional tenant-based vouchers, $5 billion for homelessness assistance, $5 billion for utility assistance, and $10 billion to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. These funds will provide vital support to keep millions of tenants and homeowners across the nation, including thousands in the District, in stable housing.
- Assistance to Schools and the District Government. The Act provides $130 billion nationwide to schools which they can use both to support their ability to provide quality in-person and remote learning opportunities (until it is safe to go back to school) and provide additional supports and programming for kids who have fallen behind as a result of the pandemic. There is also additional funding for the District to make up for lost revenue as a result of the pandemic and pay for infrastructure investments.
The legislation is not perfect, however. The law extends unemployment benefits only through September 6 (when Congress will be out of session, making it harder for Congress to ensure a renewal of benefits without a gap in coverage), and it places limitations on eligibility for full stimulus payments. Moreover, the Senate dropped the Administration’s proposed minimum wage increase of $15 per hour, representing, to quote the Economic Policy Institute, “an enormous missed opportunity to help ensure not just a strong recovery, but also an equitable one.” Legal Aid urges Congress and the Administration to revisit and enact this much needed change.
Still, with the federal aid in place (at least in the short-term), Legal Aid looks forward to continuing the fight for a District budget and policies that build on this federal investment to continue to counteract the immediate harms of the pandemic while addressing the longstanding problems that led to those harms being disproportionately born by the District’s Black and Brown communities.