A welcome stopgap, but not nearly enough

The COVID-19 relief bill will help, but much more needs to be done to combat the pandemic and make the country stronger in the face of future crises.

This holiday season, struggling families and businesses came close to getting a lump of coal from Congress. Only just before Christmas, as critical relief programs were about to expire, did lawmakers manage to pass a $900 billion aid package.

The deal is a welcome stopgap, but it’s not nearly enough. As the House was preparing to vote on the modest relief package, Rep. Pramila Jayapal was leading a virtual town hall to unveil The People’s Agenda, legislative priorities for the House Progressive Congress that would go far beyond what Congress has passed so far.

The People’s Agenda begins with aggressive COVID-19 relief—starting with monthly stimulus checks of $2,000, significantly more than the $600 one-time payouts the new deal offers. It also demands hazard pay and strong workplace protections for frontline workers, as well as proposals to cancel student and medical debt, which were left out altogether.

I helped research the potential benefits of this agenda for the Institute for Policy Studies and the Poor People’s Campaign. We produced a joint fact sheet showing that a robust response to the overlapping crises of COVID-19 could pave the way for a more equitable economy.

We highlighted, for example, that canceling up to $50,000 in student debt would erase all debt for more than three-quarters of student loan borrowers and significantly narrow racial and gender wealth divides. The just-passed deal did not extend a moratorium on student debt payments, leaving millions of families facing painful decisions between making loan payments or buying food and other essentials.

Meanwhile, the pandemic recession is raging on and could worsen if infection rates continue to surge. The official unemployed numbered 10.7 million in November 2020, and the vast majority of jobless Americans are low-income.

That’s not even counting the millions who’ve left the job market altogether. Women, who shoulder more responsibility than men for pandemic-related challenges to family health, school closures, and other disruptions, have been especially hard hit.

Providing emergency relief for these Americans remains the top priority. But the People’s Agenda also aims to jumpstart a bigger recovery that creates good jobs, gives workers more power, and accelerates the transformation to a renewable energy economy.

As our joint fact sheet points out, investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transit could help the country achieve a full employment economy while reducing energy insecurity and making it easier for low-income workers to get to work.

The wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street firms that have seen their wealth skyrocket during the pandemic must contribute their fair share to the recovery.

My IPS colleagues have calculated that the collective wealth of America’s 651 billionaires jumped by over $1 trillion between the beginning of the pandemic and December. And under the current tax code, they’ll pay steeply discounted tax rates on their stock market earnings. Restructuring our tax code would free up hundreds of billions to support a pandemic recovery.

So would cutting military spending. For example, a 10 percent cut to the Pentagon could purchase enough N95 face masks for all 55 million essential workers for more than a year, other colleagues found. Ending the U.S. wars in Yemen and Afghanistan would be a great place to start.

Congress and the Biden administration will need to use every tool in the toolbox to combat the challenges of our time—and make our country stronger in the face of future crises.

“The price of inequality is too high and the deaths from unjust policies are too many to not address,” said Poor People’s Campaign co-chair William J. Barber II. “The only way to heal the nation and have domestic tranquility is to first establish justice. This agenda sets us on the path towards doing just that.”

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She is a co-author of the IPS fact sheet Congressional Progressive Caucus Priorities: The Stakes for Women, People of Color, and Poor and Low-Income Families. This op-ed was adapted from Inequality.org and distributed by OtherWords.org.

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