Uncategorized · February 29, 2024 3

We Can Make Life Better If We Want To

Marty Levine

February 29, 2024

According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office “the federal government provided about $4.6 trillion to help the nation respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.” This extraordinary response recognized that the pandemic stressed every aspect of our lives adding an additional burden to millions who were already living at risk. Our government’s extraordinary and unprecedented action to shore up vulnerable individuals and households as well as to reinforce components of our national safety net recognized how serious a threat we faced.

COVID-19 highlighted how fragile living was for many. Beyond helping those who needed it, we created a real-time example of how effective we could be ensuring we all could live in dignity in difficult times. We demonstrated what the robust safety net I have often written about could mean in the lives of the millions of people who struggle to meet basic life needs on a day-to-day basis.

Here’s an overview of how effective these efforts were from  Sharon Parrott, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in  testimony she provided for the House Committee on the Budget:

“…the nation achieved historic gains against poverty and lowered hardship. In 2020, poverty fell by the largest amount in five decades (using the most appropriate annual measure) as a result of direct relief measures like expanded jobless benefits, Economic Impact Payments, and expanded food assistance. And in 2021, relief measures reduced poverty markedly as well, helped people access health coverage and reduced hardships like the inability to afford food or meet other basic needs based on a variety of data sources. Annual poverty data are not yet available for 2021, but a Columbia University study estimated that the American Rescue Plan alone reduced annual poverty that year by more than 12 million people — including 5.6 million children, a reduction in child poverty of 56 percent — compared with poverty without that legislation. These and other projections suggest that the Rescue Plan may turn out to be the most effective single piece of legislation for reducing annual poverty since 1935.”

That’s the positive impact that a well-designed and properly funded program can have.

And now just months after this investment in our collective well-being ended, we are watching these benefits disappear and millions of our neighbors are seeing their quality of life diminished.

One part of our national pandemic response was to keep people who had qualified for Medicaid enrolled in the program, thus ensuring them access to medical care when they might otherwise not be able to afford those services. This protection has ended, allowing states the option of disenrolling people and making it more difficult for people to qualify for the healthcare program. Unfortunately, many states have aggressively and almost gleefully chosen to do so.  

Almost a year ago the New Times reported that “Hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have lost Medicaid coverage in recent weeks as part of a sprawling unwinding of a pandemic-era policy that prohibited states from removing people from the program. Early data shows that many people lost coverage for procedural reasons, such as when Medicaid recipients did not return paperwork to verify their eligibility or could not be located. The large number of terminations on procedural grounds suggests that many people may be losing their coverage even though they are still qualified for it. Many of those who have been dropped have been children.”

According to The Center for Children & Families (CCF) at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University,  “Net enrollment has declined by 9.76 million individuals, including 3.90 million children.” Every one of these will find it more difficult to afford care and to protect their health.

And now we are seeing that beyond the impact on these millions of individuals, the loss of funding is harming the healthcare organizations that provide care to this at-risk population. As the NY Times reported last Sunday “Those health centers have each seen revenue losses of at least $500,000 because of the Medicaid unwinding. According to Amy Simmons Farber, a spokeswoman for the health center association, “In many places, Medicaid providers are among the few healthcare facilities that will accept any patient who walks through the door…People with Medicaid said that the coverage was helping to keep their lives from catastrophe, and feared what would happen if it is taken away.”

And a similar challenge is being felt in the childcare sector. Under the emergency packages in place to buffer the impact of COVID-19, the Federal Government provided funding to help keep childcare businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, open. That support is no longer available. For many providers in a childcare system that was already short of affordable, quality care, the loss of these financial supports is the final straw, and they will be forced to shutter their doors. Working parents may no longer have access to affordable, quality childcare, an essential service to keep them working.

A recent report published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) leads with “When NAEYC last surveyed the field in October 2022, it was clear that federal child care stabilization funding was keeping the sector afloat—more than a third of programs that received funds said their program would have closed permanently without them. Unfortunately, while Congress allowed those stabilization funds to expire at the end of September 2023, structural challenges that have long plagued the sector have not been resolved. The true costs of high-quality care still greatly exceed what families can afford, and absent robust, sustained public investment, early childhood education is instead subsidized by prohibitively low educator wages and prohibitively high parent fees. As a result, the available supply of high-quality childcare cannot match demand.” NAEC’ research found that “55% of all respondents were aware of at least one childcare program closing in their community in the past six months.” The loss of Federal assistance has made it difficult to deal with rising costs and a client base that does not have the income or wealth to absorb increased prices for the care they need. So, as in health care, the impact affects individual families and weakens an entire component of our national social safety net.

An expanded earned income tax credit for children living in poverty also ended although, as I had previously noted, it had moved millions of children out of poverty and reduced the overall poverty rate for children by 40%.

Proposals to add funding to replace the missing Medicaid funds so health centers are not threatened do not pass. Funding for childcare providers does not pass. Program-by-program improvements to our safety net have demonstrated that they make lives better; the empirical proof is there to make this not just an empty boast or a campaign slogan.  And program by program we have witnessed Republican senators, representatives, and governors refuse to learn that lesson and refuse to pass needed legislation to keep these supports in place. They are ready and willing to let people struggle needlessly.

It is more important to ensure military funding for Ukraine and Israel than for our neighbor’s health and well-being. It is more important to ensure that tax cuts for the wealthy are restored than it is to spend money on the welfare of our poor. It is more important to impose limits on women’s bodily integrity, ban books, or limit the freedom of choice for Trans individuals than it is to ensure childcare or health care to those who need our assistance.

That’s our federal government today. And it is our shame and responsibility that we are the ones who are electing these people to lead our nation.