We may be at a once-in-a-generation position to do something about poverty in this nation.
When voting for the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said, “I don’t know that I will ever cast a more important vote. We are not creating a narrative talking about changing lives — we are going to do it with this legislation.”
It’s a game-changer. And a necessary one.
According to the Center for American Progress, Vermont has about 61,000, or 10% of its population, living in poverty. In addition, about 10 percent of households statewide report being food insecure. The pandemic has only made that need more acute and widespread.
Much of the bill directs hundreds of billions of dollars at the least well-off Americans.
“This is the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades,” our own Bernie Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after the measure passed. “I think what shocks many in the establishment, and certainly my Republican colleagues is that we wrote a bill to address the crisis facing working families and the middle class and low-income people, and not the wealthy and large corporations and their lobbyists.”
As well as help for the unemployed, the bill includes money to reopen schools, aid for stricken small businesses, child tax credits and health insurance subsidies. As one pundit noted, “It would enshrine one of the boldest deployments of federal power to alleviate the plight of the poorest Americans in decades and invite comparisons between President Biden and great reforming Democratic presidents of the 20th century, on a crisis measure uniformly opposed by Republicans.”
In addition to its short-term impact, proponents of the bill say it has the potential to significantly cut child poverty and improve health care for many Americans — results that would not normally be expected in an economic stimulus bill.
Still, many of the benefits available under the legislation are fairly short term — unemployment benefits expire in September and child tax credits only last a year.
But advocates view the credits and health subsidies as a breakthrough years in the making and as a stepping stone to a permanent infrastructure politically difficult not to extend at least under Democratic congressional majorities.
Around Vermont, agencies that serve our most vulnerable communities are re-prioritizing and re-evaluating their services. With an infusion of money into programs aimed at fighting poverty, there is an opportunity to make an appreciable difference.
But it cannot be short-sighted. These goals need to be addressed but practical, because the money likely won’t always be there. So the foundations that need to be built must be sturdy and sustainable.
It will not be easy.
There are GOP complaints that the sprawling bill does more to address long-held liberal priorities than it does to attack the twin economic and health care crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, some Republicans want vouchers for the homeless off the taxpayer dime, and for more money being redirected toward workforce development so the economy can restart and more Americans can get back to work.
Bottom line is this. $1.9 trillion is historic. The relief bill would substantially lower poverty. For sure, there will have to be pushes made to keep programs up and running. But some advocates for people in poverty say this money could come close to halving child poverty (in Vermont the child poverty rate is current around 9.8% of the under 18 population).
With more than $6 billion for food security-related programs, more than $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, nearly $10 billion in emergency mortgage aid for homeowners, and extensions of already-expanded unemployment payments through early September, the package is full of provisions designed to help families and individuals survive and recover from pandemic-induced economic hardships. It is a silver lining if there ever was one.
Disclosure: Executive Editor Steven Pappas is chair of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action, which serves central Vermont’s most vulnerable populations. Last year, Capstone served more than 10,600 individuals; more than 6,100 households. More than 3,200 individuals were served by Capstone’s food shelf.