Wyden takes lead in urging continued aid during pandemic
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and nine other senators urged President Joe Biden to support new rounds of direct payments and supplement unemployment benefits until the U.S. economy returns to pre-pandemic levels.
The senators made their pitch Tuesday, March 2, as the Senate begins work on its version of Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery plan. The House passed it, 219-212, on Saturday, Feb. 27. Congress hopes to send a plan to Biden before current unemployment benefits end on March 13.
Included in the plan are another round of direct payments of $1,400 — following amounts of $1,200 and $600 — and weekly supplemental unemployment benefits of $400. The current benefit of $300 per week ends March 13, and the House-passed plan would boost it, but only through Aug. 29. (Wyden and Biden want an extension through Sept. 30.)
Biden is preparing to propose another long-term relief plan, which Wyden and the other senators hope to influence.
"This crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads," their letter said. "Families should not be at the mercy of constantly shifting legislative timelines and ad hoc solutions."
Wyden, a Democrat, leads the tax-writing Finance Committee. Among the other signers were Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who chairs the Banking Committee, and Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Budget Committee.
Wyden has argued that unemployment benefits should be tied to economic conditions.
The senators argue that both types of support are needed.
"Unemployment insurance has replaced lost income for millions who have lost their jobs," their letter said.
"But millions of others do not qualify for unemployment insurance after seeing their hours reduced, switching to lower-paying jobs, or temporarily leaving the workforce to care for family members during the pandemic. Direct payments are crucial for supporting struggling families who aren't reached by unemployment insurance."
They cite an Urban Institute study that 12 million people can be kept out of poverty through a $1,200 direct payment, supplemental unemployment benefits and other assistance, and 6.3 million more people can be kept out of poverty with another round of direct payments.
They also said there is widespread public support for their position, based on an online survey of 600 people by David Binder Research between Feb. 18 and 21. The sampling found 58% in support of assistance based on economic conditions — 57% from Democrats, 60% from Republicans and 59% from independents — as opposed to 35% wanting to leave it to Congress. Of those polled, 53% supported their continuation until the economy returns to pre-pandemic levels; 43% until the economic downturn ends.
The margin of error is 4 percentage points.
In the House, both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition endorsed "automatic stabilizers" for COVID relief.
The New Democrats listed it as their top priority last year, saying, "Including automatic stabilizers would enable the rapid disbursement of assistance and funds where needed most without any additional congressional action or administration roadblocks if negative conditions persist or worsen." The Progressive Caucus called for "ensuring financial assistance lasts the duration of the crisis through automatic triggers that tie assistance to economic conditions."
Other senators who signed the letter, all Democrats, were (in alphabetical order) Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Alex Padilla of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Dear President Biden:
As we work together to get much-needed relief to American families, we appreciate your strong support for direct payments and enhanced unemployment insurance for the millions of families affected by this public health and economic crisis.
We urge you to include recurring direct payments and automatic unemployment insurance extensions tied to economic conditions in your Build Back Better long-term economic plan. This crisis is far from over, and families deserve certainty that they can put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Families should not be at the mercy of constantly-shifting legislative timelines and ad hoc solutions.
There are several reasons to prioritize both recurring payments and enhanced unemployment insurance. First, these two forms of payments are effective together. Unemployment insurance has replaced lost income for millions who have lost their jobs. But millions of others do not qualify for unemployment insurance after seeing their hours reduced, switching to lower-paying jobs, or temporarily leaving the workforce to care for family members during the pandemic. Direct payments are crucial for supporting struggling families who aren't reached by unemployment insurance. An Urban Institute study suggests that a single direct payment of $1,200 combined with an extension of enhanced unemployment insurance and other assistance could keep 12 million people out of poverty, and adding a second direct payment could keep an additional 6.3 million people above the poverty line.
Second, data shows that direct payments and enhanced unemployment insurance are among the most effective forms of relief available. Not only do these payments help keep families out of poverty, but they act as economic stimulus by increasing spending and supporting jobs. When the CARES Act relief checks ran out, poverty rose, and many families saw spiraling debt. Automatic stabilizers will give families certainty that more relief is coming, allowing them to make the best decisions about how to spend their relief payments as they receive them. Families shouldn't have to worry about whether they'll have enough money to pay for essentials in the months ahead as the country continues to fight a global pandemic. Almost six in ten people say the $1,400 payments set to be included in the rescue package will last them less than three months.
Third, recurring direct payments have wide support from both the general public and economic experts. Polling shows 65 percent of Americans support recurring cash payments "for the duration of the pandemic." This includes support from 54 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of independents. Economists support the idea too. More than 150 economists recently wrote an open letter supporting automatic stabilizers as part of a strong recovery and warning against repeating the mistakes of the Great Recession, when an insufficient response led to unnecessary suffering, particularly among low-income workers.
As you have said, now is the time for boldness. As you prepare your Build Back Better plan for long-term economic recovery, know that we are ready to work with you in support of recurring direct checks and extended unemployment insurance benefits to support Americans who are still struggling during the pandemic.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Oregon)
Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts)
Sen. Alex Padilla (California)
Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey)
Sen. Michael Bennet (Colorado)
Sen. Ed Markey (Massachusetts)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York)
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