By Sunita Sohrabji, EMS Contributing Editor
A $908 billion stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump late Dec. 27 evening will afford scant relief to millions of Americans facing evictions and the end of their unemployment benefits.
“The COVID relief package is much smaller than I would have preferred. But at the same time, it’s better than nothing and that is why I voted for it,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, speaking Dec. 22morning at an Ethnic Media Services briefing. An earlier round of stimulus funding last April allocated more than $2 trillion towards economic recovery.
Lieu is a member of the House Progressive Caucus, which had heavily pushed for a second direct-payment stimulus check of $2,000 to be included in the second round of funding. The bill was approved with a $600 check for each U.S. resident earning under $75,000: many households were expected to receive their second stimulus checks before the end of the year, according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Significantly, mixed status families, with undocumented immigrants living alongside U.S. residents, will get relief checks in this round and can also apply for back-benefits from the previous round of $1,200 checks, said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, speaking at the EMS briefing. Undocumented immigrants, however, are still ineligible for the relief checks.
Trump signed the bill after several days of delay while he pushed for a $2,000 stimulus check, ironically as the House Progressive Caucus had asked for. In a press statement released by the White House Dec. 27 evening, the President said he had signed the bill with the understanding that the House and Senate would approve a $2,000 stimulus check on Dec. 28.
“Much more money is coming. I will never give up my fight for the American people,” said Trump in the statement.
“This is not an insignificant bill. I just don’t think is a big enough to address a scale of this pandemic,” said Lieu at the EMS briefing. The congressman from Southern California noted that the measure provides $25 billion in relief to renters facing eviction, and extends the federal eviction moratorium, currently due to expire Dec. 31, by one additional month.
Peter Hepburn, associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, and a research fellow at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, where he led the organization’s research on evictions during the pandemic, said $25 billion would go a long way towards helping renters survive evictions this winter, though he would have preferred to see $30 billion. He advocated for direct funding to tenants to sidestep the issue of landlords who don’t want to participate in the program because it limits their ability to evict tenants.
Black renters make up 35 percent of those facing eviction, said Hepburn. “The history of housing in this country is a long story of dispossession and systemic racialized exclusion,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, 3.7 million renters around the country were facing evictions. Eviction moratoriums averted at least 1.5 million evictions, but Hepburn predicted a tsunami of eviction orders once moratoriums are lifted.
Hepburn said he was also glad that the eviction moratorium had been extended for a month, giving incoming President Joe Biden an opportunity to address the issue more comprehensively during the first 10 days of his administration.
More than $284 billion has been included for a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loan funding, intended to help small businesses retain their employees and stay afloat amid the pandemic. Rep Lieu acknowledged tremendous fraud in the first round of PPP funding as venture-backed entities and large corporations with franchise locations gobbled up most of the loans. He said an oversight committee has been established to ensure that the money gets out to mom and pop small businesses; much of the funding will be distributed through community development banks and other minority institutions.
The bill also dedicates almost $82 billion to education, with an additional $7 billion to develop broadband with the aim of equipping low-income children to participate in remote learning. Funds have also been allocated for vaccine distribution.
“I look forward to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris coming in on Jan. 20th, and then we will try again with another round of stimulus next year,” said Lieu.
Stone of CBPP said the outlook for economic recovery remains grim: almost 10 million workers rendered jobless by the pandemic will continue to face a tough time in gaining sustainable work. Black and Latinx people have been hit hardest, with unemployment rates of 10.3 percent and 8.4 percent respectively, said Stone referring to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the month of November.
Meanwhile, almost 4 million people have been out of work for more than 26 weeks, and currently stand to lose their unemployment benefits. A provision in the relief bill extends unemployment insurance until March 15, but Stone stated that more weeks need to be added. During the 2008 recession, he noted, unemployed workers were able to avail of benefits for up to 18 months.
An earlier stimulus package passed in April added a $600 per week additional unemployment benefit — on top of state benefits. Stone said the additional relief, which expired at the end of July, ended just as the economy was showing signs of recovery.
“The cruel irony is that as the economy was starting to come out of the deep hole the $600 dollars disappeared. And there was no further stimulus to keep the recovery going,” he said.
The new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program offers assistance to gig workers who were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, but did not qualify for regular unemployment benefits. Stone noted however that both of these programs expire March 15 while the economy remains in a slump.
“The economy is not going to be back anywhere near where it needs to be. From the first day of walking into office, the new Congress, President Biden and Vice President Harris should should be working to make sure that we have the stimulus that we need to relieve the hardship,” said Stone.