“Well folks, I guess we’re gonna have to make some tough choices.”
You hear that a lot these days and usually it’s coming from the mouth of a politician who’s never had to make a tough choice in his life. Never sweated a payroll or met a bank-loan due date, had a mortgage in danger of foreclosure or a kid swamped in college debt with no job. For sure never lived in a cardboard box.
Tough choices always have one thing in common
Two things, actually. First, they are never going to affect the aging white man making the choice, while sadly shaking his head and looking sorrowfully down from whatever elevated platform he speaks. It might be a Senate committee or a suburban school-board meeting. The axe is about to fall on someone, but it ain’t going to be him. Second, whoever feels that sharp cut is going to be a step or two, maybe a whole flight of stairs below the speakers personal position at the time the statement is made. That’s axiomatic. The boss fires, and then gives himself a raise for cost-cutting expertise. It’s the guy behind a desk who’s packing the pictures of his kids and wondering where the hell to go next who's in a sweat.
Which is why the Biden $1.9 trillion Covid Relief package is so unique
You didn’t see that coming. You thought I was about to whine about the poor. 49 days into his administration Biden has shown a remarkable ability to get a huge relief package through Republican opposition, a victory few thought he could navigate. Known as the American Rescue Plan Act, not a single Republican in either the House or Senate voted for the legislation.
"This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation – the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going – a fighting chance," the president said.
Been a while since we’ve heard those values expressed.
What’s in the bill
Extended Unemployment Benefits: The American Rescue Plan Act extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits of $300 a week through September 6, 2021 and increases the total number of weeks available from 50 to 79. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits of $300 are also extended through Sept. 6, 2021.In addition, the first $10,200 in 2020 benefits is tax free for families making $150,000 or less. People who had taxes withheld from unemployment benefits in 2020 will be able to recover them when they file their 2020 taxes or via an amended tax return if they have already filed taxes. The Act also provides a 100% subsidy of COBRA health insurance premiums so unemployed workers can remain on their employer healthcare plans through the end of September
Direct Financial Payments: The plan provides for direct $1,400 stimulus payments to people making $75,000 or less annually, building on the $600 payments in the second stimulus package to reach the $2,000 mark originally requested by former president Trump in December.
$21.55 billion for emergency rental assistance through Sept. 30, 2027
$5 billion in emergency housing vouchers through Sept. 30, 2030
$750 million for tribal housing
$100 million for rural housing
$5 billion to assist people experiencing homelessness
Sounds to me like the first time since Reagan we’ve tried a trickle-up approach to financial equality.
Increased Food Aid: The legislation extends the 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through Sept. 30, 2021. and provides $1.15 billion to states for SNAP administration, as well as $1 billion for nutrition assistance programs in U.S. It also allocates $490 million to the USDA to increase the amount of the cash-value vouchers under the WIC program for Women, Infants, and Children. In addition, the plan allocates $390 million to increase participation in WIC.
Expanded Child Tax Credit: The American Rescue Plan Act increases the Child Tax Credit maximum to $3,000 a year for each child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for each child under age 6 for couples who make $150,000 or less and single parents who make $112,500 or less. Payments will be sent by direct deposit on a monthly basis, according to current language. A family with one child under 6 would receive $300 per month and $250 per month for children from 6 to 17.
Student Loan Forgiveness Tax Free: While the plan does not include student loan forgiveness, it does include a provision that any student loan forgiveness passed between Dec. 30, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2026, will be tax free. Normally, loan forgiveness counts as taxable income.
Schools and Childcare Block Grants: The bill sets aside $130 billion for K-12 education. This money will be used to reduce class sizes, improve ventilation, purchase personal protective equipment, and fund other steps to help schools reopen safely.
Almost $40 billion would go to colleges and universities to provide emergency financial aid grants for students. An additional $40 billion will go to childcare providers through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. The act also includes $1 billion for the Head Start program.
Help for Businesses: A new program for restaurants and bars allocates $25 billion in pandemic assistance grants. The grants can provide up to $10 million per company with a limit of $5 million per physical location and used to cover payroll, rent, utilities and other expenses. The Paycheck Protection Program will receive an additional $7.25 billion and more non-profits will now be allowed to apply for forgivable loans to help cover payroll and other operating expenses.
Pandemic Response: About $50 billion will pay for additional COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and $19 billion will help increase the size of the public health workforce. About $16 billion will fund vaccine distribution and supply chains. The bill provides $46 billion to expand federal, state, and local testing for COVID-19 and to enhance contract-tracing capabilities with new investments to expand laboratory capacity and set up mobile testing units. It also contains about $14 billion to speed up the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines across the country.
State and Local Government: The American Rescue Plan includes $350 billion in aid to states, cities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. These funds are designated to help replace lost tax revenue due to the pandemic. Analysis by the Washington Post found that a majority (26) of states experienced revenue declines between Dec. 2019 and Dec. 2020.
Equally tough choices, far different recipients
Not to put too sharp a point on it, but Trump and his cohorts rammed a similar size package through Congress as well. It chose to give most of it to the rich (including Trump) and we never heard a word about increasing the deficit. Instead of top-down, Biden has chosen to work the same deal from the bottom-up and it’s suddenly deficit-reduction-time in the GOP. Makes me chuckle at how tax reduction gifts to the wealthy are never a deficit problem. Every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan has doubled, tripled or quadrupled the deficit, while Democrats keep bringing them down.
But being a fair and trusting guy, I take Republican objections at face value
Let’s see how it works out this time.
Image Credit: The Guardian