Federal Response to Coronavirus Public Health and Economic Crisis Must Prioritize People with Low Incomes

By Oliva Golden

The devastating public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has rapidly become an economic crisis. As schools, child care programs, and businesses have shut down and people are sheltering at home, individuals and families with low incomes and communities of color face far greater economic vulnerability than those who went into the crisis with more resources, and they also face serious health risks. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted last week, was a critical step forward to providing people and families—particularly those who have low incomes—with necessary financial support to take care of their health, nutrition, and caregiving needs. But Congress must do more.

As Congress and the White House negotiate a coronavirus response and economic stimulus package, they must focus on people with low incomes and communities of color because their needs are urgent and because we cannot conquer the virus or rebuild our economy without successfully ensuring that everyone has access to health care and an economic lifeline. None of us can be safe and healthy unless all of us are safe and healthy.

The Senate bill proposed this weekend excludes too many workers and families who are the most vulnerable economically. It also fails to invest in needed health and nutrition supports for individuals and families and fails to adequately support state and local governments in their efforts to respond to the public health and economic crises. Leaving people out during this unprecedented emergency is not only unfair, unjust and immoral– it also guarantees that we won’t solve either the public health or the economic crisis.

Federal (and state) action must be aggressive not only because the crisis is so large – but also because our nation entered this moment already so far behind. At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, we already had a deeply unequal economy and stark inequities in health access, made worse by the Trump Administration’s three years of misguided attacks on people of color, immigrants and their families, and people with low incomes—along with its attempts to undermine core federal health and nutrition programs. We must immediately reverse existing policies that stand in the way of advancing the health and economic stability of everyone, including those that restrict access to public benefits. And continued Trump Administration attacks on Asian-Americans and on immigrants during the coronavirus response are dangerous, racist, morally wrong, and counter-productive.

We urge Congress and the federal government to act immediately and boldly to respond powerfully to the needs of people with low incomes and communities of color:

  1. Congress and the administration must pass a bold and comprehensive economic stimulus that immediately gets resources in the hands of families and individuals with low incomes and communities of color. These are the people who will surely be most severely impacted by a potential economic recession. To effectively reach people with low incomes, any proposals aimed at business must include protections and targeted supports for workers and those who have lost their jobs or whose hours have been cut, including people in the gig economy and others lacking benefits. Provisions aimed at all (for example, emergency cash assistance) must be designed to include people with low incomes – rather than exclude them, as in plans that deny help for the lowest earners -- and preferably ensure those with the fewest resources get the most help. At a minimum, these provisions should be in addition to, not instead of, additional help targeted to people experiencing income loss through existing programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The stimulus legislation must also include supplemental provisions for individuals impacted by the criminal justice system.
  2. Health and safety must be a crucial part of the package. The legislation passed so far—and the current Senate Republican proposal— includes major holes when it comes to health care access in the context of the pandemic; policymakers must fill these immediately. This includes expanded coverage for treatment, not just testing; ensuring that everyone—including communities of color and immigrants and their families—can have access to health coverage without barriers, including fear; access to protective equipment for all health care workers, including home care aides; release of people from unsafe detention settings; and protections to ensure that all workers-- including those who work for large and small businesses, gig workers, and seasonal workers—can access paid leave when needed to stay home.
  3. Sustaining services, supports, and infrastructure that undergird the wellbeing of children, youth, families, and individuals must be a top priority. This includes sustaining services during the crisis wherever possible and assuring that staff and organizations providing crucial infrastructure – for example, child care providers, community colleges, and workforce development and summer jobs programs -- survive economically and are ready to reopen after the health crisis passes. The current crisis has brought to light the critical role of child care in supporting workers and their families. The federal government must invest significant resources to shore up the already fragile child care industry and ensure its continuity to support workers during and after the current crisis. States also need immediate resources to support the provision of safe, emergency child care for essential workers during this crisis.
  4. Robust supports to help state and local governments stave off budget shortfalls. State and local governments are crucial to both the public health response and the economic stimulus, so Congress must support them to respond powerfully to the needs of people with low incomes. This includes emergency funding for crucial services that are most immediate such as health care, child care, and economic supports for people impacted by the crisis. It also means further funding to stabilize state budgets that will be overwhelmed by the current situation and to expand administrative funding for programs, like unemployment insurance, that are experiencing increasing demand. Fiscal relief to state and local government can stave off cuts for basic infrastructure, including health, elementary and postsecondary education, and human service needs now and into the future.

Congress must take swift and bold action that recognizes the interconnectedness of us all. The only appropriate response right now is one that responds fully to the universality of the public health crisis, the scale of economic devastation, and the destructive and persistent inequities in how the economic crises will impact our communities.