Even with the prospect of new COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, it is clear the pandemic has battered, and continues to threaten, the economic and social foundations on which most Americans have built and sustained their lives. The impact of the coronavirus will almost certainly worsen over the winter months, including more cases, more deaths, more business closures, and more job losses.
The most recent census data reveal the human impact of COVID-19 and of America’s failed public health response even before the dark winter months of the pandemic:
- One-third of all adults have found it difficult to cover basic expenses, such rent, food, or credit payments.
- One in six renters report that they are not caught up on their rent payments.
- 12% of Americans indicate that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last week.
- Weekly unemployment claims remain historically high, and this summer’s modest rebound in job creation has stalled.
To address this crisis, Congress must enact, and President Trump must sign, new COVID relief legislation that, at a minimum, extends expiring unemployment insurance benefits, continues eviction moratoria while providing rental assistance for needy people, protects food assistance programs, and injects financial support to state and local governments stressed by the COVID-19 response and declining tax revenues.
However, I also believe this crisis is also the time to think more systematically about building a more resilient social safety net that not only addresses the needs of Americans affected by COVID-19 but also lays the foundation for the kinds of supports American families need to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.
We should begin by developing policy, programmatic, and implementation strategies critical to supporting four population groups whose economic security will be essential to managing and curtailing virus spread over the next 12 months:
- Essential workers and healthcare workers, who need work supports like child care, tax credits, family leave, paid leave, SNAP, Medicaid, and housing assistance;
- Unemployed people need economic stability, like unemployment insurance, SNAP, Medicaid, housing, and cash payments, during this period of historic joblessness;
- Vulnerable populations, including the elderly, people with disabilities, residents of care facilities, homeless and incarcerated individuals, and people in the child welfare system, need engagement and customized services and protections; and
- Other special communities, like immigrants, refugees, mixed-status households, and tribes, need outreach to assess and understand what targeted programs, like tribal TANF and immigrant benefits, meet their specific needs during this time
The best way to finance these strategies would be for the federal government to tap its generally progressive revenue base and borrow funds (at today’s hyper-low interest rates) for programs implemented by state and local governments, as well as nonprofits. Beyond additional funding, the federal government should also help state and local governments use existing flexibilities in safety net programs, like waivers, regulatory guidance, application simplification, technology, and streamlined documentation standards, to better serve more people who need support. State and local initiatives like food banks and pantries, eviction moratoria, utility cutoff protections, and reducing homeless shelter density, should complement this assistance to people at risk.
One of the remarkable aspects of the pandemic is a renewed appreciation of the federal nature of the U.S. system of government and the essential roles played by state and local government leaders and programs. In fact, responsibility for setting policies and administering most social programs is shared between federal, state, and (sometimes) county or city governments. This results in substantial complexity between levels of government and across categorical programs, causing significant variation in the generosity and reach of assistance programs across states and, in some cases, between counties. Programs also vary considerably in their eligibility, application, documentation, enrollment, auditing, and management standards.
In light of this federal system and the economic dislocations of COVID-19, I recommend that the incoming Biden-Harris administration work with state and county leaders to create an intergovernmental roadmap of policy and implementation options that states and localities can use to design better social safety nets on which all American families can rely. This roadmap will combine new resources from federal coronavirus legislation passed this year with state and local flexibilities within longstanding assistance programs. National organizations of state and local officials could work with federal agencies, as well as community leaders and experts, to develop this intergovernmental roadmap.
This is an historic moment to rethink old ways of doing business, eliminate outmoded regulations and procedures, and shore up the foundations that families undeniably need to withstand this crisis. While appreciating the fiscal crises they face, States and localities should use all the tools at their disposal to build more resilient platforms that reach as many people as possible with the supports they require.
There is no better time for our states, the “laboratories of democracy,” to experiment with new policies for restoring the vital economic and social foundations so many Americans and their families will need to combat COVID-19 and redefine the terms of the American social contract in the years ahead.
John T. Monahan is a Senior Scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Senior Advisor for Global Health to Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia, and Senior Fellow at the McCourt School of Public Policy.