A few days ago, after Joe Biden put his John Hancock on the new COVID relief package, his Twitter account ran a video of average people saying how they’ll spend the $1,400 stimulus check. Almost all of the folks giving testimonials plan to use the one-time check to pay recurring costs — bills, rent, food — that they’re having trouble covering. It leads with a woman talking about how she fell behind when she got sick and the check will help her “pay forward” some of those bills. Black people, who suffered disproportionately due to COVID, are featured prominently. One Black woman talks about how she can now buy “food for her girls” and get her electricity turned back on.
As far as official propaganda goes, this is pretty bleak and uninspiring — also it fundamentally runs counter to its own purpose.
Pro tip for Democratic PR professionals: If you want to show to the American public how effective your policy is, don’t put out a video that highlights its flaws.
Biden’s critics to his left flank have been saying for a while that regular relief checks are needed to sustain those hardest hit and stimulate the economy, and this video basically proves their point. No doubt these people feel some relief to be able to pay back rent and bills, but come next month, the costs will continue to pile up.
Direct cash payments are needed for the duration of the COVID crisis, which is expected to continue in some form until 2022 despite vaccines — with its economic after-effects lingering for some time after.
The so-called American Rescue Plan has been variously hailed as “ambitious,” “massive,” “historic,” etc. The Washington Post laid it on particularly thick with the headline “Biden Showers Stimulus Money on Americans.” But when considered in context, the package is doing the bare minimum.
Because of the enormousness of the crisis, a relief bill can be accurately described as “massive” — “unprecedented” even — and still be insufficient.
Biden’s plan includes $27 billion for rental assistance, which is slightly more than the amount allocated under the previous stimulus the Trump Administration passed in December. Financial analysts at Moody’s estimate that Americans are behind on rent by roughly $57 billion.
So all told, it falls short at least $5 billion.
When the December relief bill passed, 9.4 million renters were underwater. By the beginning of March, that figure had grown to 13.5 million. According to one study, they owe more than $5,000 on average. As the Urban Institute points out, a sizeable chunk of renters were vulnerable even before the pandemic, with one-fourth spending half their monthly incomes on rent. Prior to the outbreak, two-thirds of Americans couldn’t afford a $500 emergency.
What’s more, the bill does not extend the federal moratorium on evictions past the end of the month. In states without their own moratoriums, renters who are behind will suddenly face the threat of losing their housing.
In practice, it will mostly be landlords getting “rescued” not tenants.
The name of the “American Rescue Plan” is worth interrogating. The use of the word “rescue” in the branding implies extending a hand temporarily during a specific time of need. It seems intended to push back on the possibility that government intervention might become routine.
There are obvious neoliberal overtones. The clear message: “Yes, we’ll help you with targeted means-tested relief this once, but don’t get used to it.” The point is to foreclose on the possibility of more robust and permanent social-democratic policies, such as UBI, living wage, Medicare for All, etc.
Claims that the bill will “cut child poverty in half” should likewise be unpacked. Putting aside the fact that the federal poverty line is already abysmally and arbitrarily low ($21,900 for a family of three), poverty is a persistent and systemic problem that requires long-term solutions.
A one-time cash infusion to the nation’s poorest to achieve a temporary reduction in poverty on paper is a hollow victory. In the winter, 17 million children were projected to go hungry this year. Assuming the plan works as advertised, that still leaves 8.5 million hungry kids — and that’s a disgrace.
At the end of the day, without adequately addressing the deep structural roots of inequality and the dire immediate needs of Americans in crisis, the American Rescue Plan is akin to pulling someone out of their flaming home and resettling them in a refugee camp on the edge of a raging forest fire.