Why Can’t the U.S. Expand Pandemic Relief Programs?

Youth with face coverings giving grocery bag to mother and child
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The following blog summarizes a commentary piece posted by the National Academy of Medicine and co-authored by Marianne Bitler, professor in the Department of Economics at UC Davis.

Access the full commentary here

The adverse economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to socioeconomic and health disparities in the United States, with a disproportionate impact among low-income persons and communities of color. However, these disparities documented over the past two years are not new, and historically the U.S. safety net has not buffered vulnerable families from financial adversity to the same extent as do the safety nets of most peer nations. Policymakers, community organizations, and other stakeholders should leverage the urgency of this crisis to strengthen the safety net.

The U.S. government introduced new social assistance programs and strengthened existing ones to diminish the socioeconomic burdens brought on by the pandemic. However, some of the programs that yielded positive results have been terminated. Considering the benefits of the expansion and reinforcement of the country’s safety net, the government should consider permanently implementing the social assistance programs and policies. 

Already established socioeconomic inequities in the United States pertaining to income, housing and health were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. While socioeconomic hardships affected the vast majority of the U.S. population, adversities mainly affected under-represented and low-income groups. 

Black and Latinx workers — particularly women — are more likely to work in low-paid industries. These low-paying jobs make up 30% of all jobs but 56% of jobs lost during the pandemic. As a result, 44% of Black families and 38% of Latinx families reported having trouble paying household expenses in October 2021 compared with 23% for white families, with similar disparities during earlier periods of the pandemic. 

Additionally, strong evidence suggests economic inequities aggravated health inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mortality rates among Black, Hispanic, and Asian people were more than double those among whites. Black and Latinx adults were more likely to face food insufficiency than white adults and more likely to report anxiety and depression compared with white adults. 

Solutions happened

Federal and state governments reinforced existing safety net policies and introduced new ones to counter the difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Potential solutions

  • Make temporary COVID-19 safety net programs permanent. 
  • Enhance take-up of existing programs. 
  • Expand and modernize Unemployment Insurance.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state governments issued and extended eviction moratoria to provide housing stability to millions of families. Most Americans also received multiple rounds of economic impact payments (i.e., stimulus checks), and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program provided grocery vouchers for the value of school meals lost due to school closures.

In May 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act temporarily expanded the Child Tax Credit, or CTC, a federal benefit for families with children, to include lower-income and unemployed parents. 

Individuals who became ineligible for the earned income tax credit because they were unable to work in 2020 were allowed to claim the benefit using their 2019 income, and workers without custodial children became eligible for a larger credit. States were also prevented from disenrolling people from Medicaid for the duration of the health emergency.

Policies helped families and can again

Studies over the past year have shown that these policies effectively protected families from the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic. The termination of these COVID-19 assistance programs is not surprising given the United States’ history of providing inadequate assistance to its under-served communities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that the severity of the socioeconomic hardships can be diminished by expanding and improving government support programs.

The U.S. government could permanently establish the temporary COVID-19 safety net programs. These programs include the CTC, paid leave and nutrition assistance programs. The federal government should also consider providing a source of basic income for nonworking individuals, especially during times of hardship and for those without children who are ineligible for the CTC.

Improving the application process for assistance programs would ensure more individuals receive resources. 

State governments could expand unemployment insurance by allowing all workers to pay into and be eligible for it. 

The expansion and strengthening of the U.S. safety net would ensure all individuals receive the necessary assistance to secure their livelihood whether in times of crisis or not. 

This piece was written by Rita Hamad, an associate professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine and the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco; Krista Ruffini, assistant professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University; Marianne Bitler, professor in the Department of Economics at UC Davis and Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. 

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