US: Provide Meaningful Covid-19 Relief

Click to expand Image

A volunteer prepares boxes of food assistance at the Share Your Christmas food distribution event sponsored by the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, Faith Neighborhood Center, and WESH 2 at Hope International Church on December 9, 2020 in Groveland, Florida.
© Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via AP

(Washington, DC) – The United States Congress should strengthen and pass another round of Covid-19 emergency relief before existing protections expire, Human Rights Watch said today. One million new unemployment claims are being filed each week in the US, millions of workers are about to lose emergency jobless benefits, and the federal eviction moratorium runs out at the end of the year.

The bipartisan Covid-19 relief package proposed in the US Congress on December 14, 2020, would extend pandemic unemployment benefits for 16 weeks and devote billions of dollars to rent assistance and food support, essential measures in this crisis. But Congress should add to the proposed bills direct cash relief to those in need of support in the form of stimulus checks, extend paid leave set to expire at the end of the year, and prevent residential evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs beyond January 31, 2021. Congress also should not bundle much-needed financial aid to state and local governments with a corporate liability shield that puts workers’ rights at risk.

“The extent of the economic desperation demands a bold US policy response to prevent a massive surge in poverty, housing displacement, and inequality,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The proposed relief package needs to be improved to reflect the fact that people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line.”

The pandemic has spread and deepened the fissures of inequality and inadequate public policies that existed prior to the pandemic. Eight million people in the United States were pushed below the poverty line in the last six months alone, despite emergency measures at the state and federal levels. The Aspen Institute estimates that about 30 million renters are at risk of eviction by the end of the year. Nearly 26 million adults say their households, the majority of which include children, had not had enough to eat in the previous seven days, as recorded in the Census’ Household Pulse Survey from November 11 to 23. The situation will only worsen unless the new relief package extends existing protections, Human Rights Watch said.

Three key forms of pandemic unemployment support soon set to expire are at issue – the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which extends regular state benefits by 13 weeks; the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides benefits to non-traditional workers such as gig workers; and the current $300 weekly unemployment supplement. A package renewing these forms of support should be passed before unemployed workers lose their only income.

“It is crucial for the US Congress to pass legislation that extends pandemic jobless benefits, which should be provided to all workers, including informal economy and undocumented workers who are excluded from the proposed package,” Simet said. “Any aid going to businesses should be tied to policies that benefit workers.”

The proposed relief package would provide $25 billion to state and local governments to help pay for rent and utilities and would temporarily extend the eviction moratorium for one month, until January 31. Congress should extend the federal moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs beyond January 31 to ensure that no one loses their home because of an inability to pay, Human Rights Watch said. 

According to the November household survey, one in six renters nationally reported that they were unable to pay November’s rent on time. Most affected are renter households with children (23 percent are behind on rent), renter households earning less than $35,000 per year (23 percent), and Black (31 percent) and Latinx (18 percent). As many as 42 percent of Black and 37 percent of Latinx renters have slight or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent on time. Estimates indicate over 11 million renters will owe more than three months in back rent at year’s-end. Among homeowners, more than one in ten have slight or no confidence in making next month’s mortgage payments.

It is essential for Congress to pass a package that sufficiently increases food support so that no one goes hungry during this pandemic, Human Rights Watch said. Food insecurity in the United States has tripled since the start of the pandemic among households with children, and has doubled overall, Northwestern University research shows. The burden falls disproportionally on Black and Latinx households, which are almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity as white families. Among those who have used Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds in the past week, one out of three reported they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. Though the proposed package includes a four-month 15 percent increase in funding for the program, this only equates to an additional $25 per recipient per month, falling well short of the demand.

Congress should also extend emergency paid sick days and paid family leave protections provided under the Families First Act, which will also expire in December. Paid leave should be provided to all workers, including those currently left out, Human Rights Watch said. The Center for American Progress estimates that as many as 160 million workers were excluded from the Families First Act, many of them essential workers and disproportionally people of color, women, and low-wage workers.

The proposed relief package also falls short in getting financial support into the hands of those who need it most quickly in the form of direct cash relief. More than one in three adults recently reported difficulty in paying normal household expenses. The Census survey data from July show that most households used the CARES Act one-time stimulus check to pay for essential household expenditures. Over 70 percent reported using some of the payment for food while 55 percent used a portion of it to pay for their rent or mortgage. In late November, half the adults in the United States reported drawing down savings, taking out loans, or using credit cards to meet spending needs.

A separate bipartisan bill within the relief package bundles urgently needed state, local, and tribal assistance with a corporate liability shield that would strip workers of the few legal tools available to ensure safe conditions and provide remedy for workplace abuses. State and local governments require these funds to provide many forms of financial and other assistance to needy families. Congress should strip the corporate liability shield from this essential aid package, Human Rights Watch said.

“The rising poverty, hunger, and risk of eviction facing people in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic are entirely preventable,” Simet said. “The extent and severity of continued hardships and deepening inequality along income, racial, and gender lines now depend on Congress, and whether relief is robust enough to protect people’s rights to an adequate standard of living, including housing and food.”