Safety net programs are not a handout. They can help people weather a variety of economic crises by meeting basic needs and providing stability. Yet the pandemic has exposed just how pitifully inadequate America’s safety net structure is.
Before the pandemic, state unemployment insurance (UI) did not cover monthly expenses anywhere in the country and excluded millions of others due to their work classification, previous earnings, length of employment, or immigration status.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided a temporary $600 weekly boost to UI, lifting millions out of poverty before that provision was allowed to expire at the end of July 2020. The American Rescue Plan continued a $300 weekly supplement to UI that started in December 2020, providing an income to millions of long-term unemployed and self-employed workers, independent contractors, gig workers, and others. Unfortunately, this supplement and the other temporary federal UI expansions were set to expire nationally on September 6, 2021. To make matters worse, at least 26 governors have pledged to end some or all of these programs even sooner, cutting benefits for 4.7 million people and severely affecting their ability to recover from the pandemic.
Additional programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), intended for those with the lowest incomes, still have not done enough to prevent hunger and food insecurity in America. Yet before COVID-19 hit, the inadequate benefit amounts forced 45 percent of SNAP recipients to limit the food they ate or skip meals just to make it through the month; and nearly a third of SNAP recipients had to visit a food pantry to keep themselves fed. From December 2019 to December 2020, the demand for charitable food assistance rose by nearly 50 percent. This was especially pre-dominant for households of color, households with children, and people with disabilities. Thank goodness, the American Rescue Plan contained significant expansions in food assistance programs to help mitigate the high levels of hunger seen throughout the crisis. But more must be done. Lawmakers must expand eligibility for SNAP, ensuring that currently excluded groups—including foster care kids, undocumented immigrants and college students—were able to receive necessary food assistance. Oppressive work requirements that only serve to push people away from assistance, rather than encourage work, should be eliminated.
Short-term expansions of the safety net are not enough or adequate to help the millions of American children who are still struggling with the economic and health fallout from the pandemic. Congress must continue to invest in and modernize safety net programs targeting children directly, ensuring that benefit levels are expanded and more accessible than they were before the crisis. We should additionally consider implementing automatic triggers that would expand benefits during future economic shocks, such as recessions, without the need for legislative intervention. Not only would this prevent people from falling into poverty while Congress argues over how much relief is necessary, having a system that automatically triggers expanded benefits would also help soften the blow of future recessions and stimulate the economy by giving money to people who desperately need it in a timely fashion before it’s too late and costly.