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6 things the fourth federal relief package must do

Commentary

Even before Congress had finished enacting the largest federal response yet to the coronavirus crisis, it was clear that this historic package would not be nearly enough. The day before the nearly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law, new weekly unemployment claims shattered records. A week later, that record fell again to yet another jaw-dropping spike in unemployment claims. Congress is currently discussing the need for an interim relief package to shore up funding for key programs in the CARES Act.

Certainly, the CARES Act provides Oregonians much needed support as we weather this storm. It includes a robust expansion of unemployment insurance, direct cash aid to many individuals, and forgivable loans for small businesses. This legislation also included $150 billion in funding to state and local governments to pay for the coronavirus response.

Even with all of this, Congress must do more. Here are six things the next — and hopefully prompt — federal relief package should do:

Provide more aid to states

Unlike the federal government, Oregon cannot run a deficit. The state cannot spend more revenue than it collects. Recessions, however, cause revenue collection to fall. This means that, without federal assistance, the state’s options during economic downturns are to spend reserves, cut funding to vital programs — just as more Oregonians turn to state services for help — or raise taxes.

One of the most glaring shortcomings of the CARES Act is the absence of funds to shore up state budgets. Of the $150 billion the CARES Act included for state and local governments, an estimated $1.6 billion will flow to state and local governments in Oregon. These funds are explicitly to address the costs of responding to the crisis — a top priority, for sure. These funds, however, are not available to fill holes in public budgets caused by the economic crisis. Even if these resources were available for general purposes, they fall well short of the budget shortfalls that states faced during the height of the Great Recession. Due to the unique nature of this economic crisis, shortfalls could be even larger this time.

Bottom line: Congress needs to route more funds to state and local governments to ensure existing services can continue throughout the economic crisis.

Expand health-care coverage and funding

Federal action is needed to ensure that everyone who needs medical care is able to access it. While previous federal legislation modestly increased the share of Medicaid costs covered by the federal government, more funding is needed to ensure that Oregonians who lose job-based or individual market health insurance have access to care at this critical moment. At the same time, federal legislation must ensure that states preserve their existing Medicaid program eligibility and benefit standards so that low-income Americans do not lose coverage during the pandemic.

Additionally, Congress must ensure that uninsured immigrants are able to receive Medicaid coverage for coronavirus treatment. Conquering the pandemic depends on universal access to testing and treatment, without exceptions. Congress must enable access to vital health care regardless of immigration status or ability to pay.

Boost funding to SNAP

In this time of economic uncertainty, many Oregon families are wondering how they are going to put food on the table. The CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act removed some barriers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly “food stamps”), and allocated modest funding for the program. Oregon has also made it easier to access SNAP by making online grocery shopping available for SNAP recipients. Congress should do more to support families whose incomes have taken a hit during this crisis by boosting SNAP funding — providing more money for food directly to families.

Help people pay the rent

Though the CARES Act did not forget about housing, the monies invested in this area fall well-short of need. Even before the current crisis federal support for rent assistance was woefully inadequate to meet the need in our communities. Many renters in Oregon will benefit from the eviction moratorium put in place by Governor Brown, but this only delays the inevitable if there is not subsequent funding to help people pay the back rent. While the CARES Act allocated $12 billion to support housing programs, it will take a lot more to make sure Oregonians who have been laid off or who have low-income are able to pay the rent and remain housed.

Give everyone more cash

Oregonians will need more cash. The CARES Act includes rebate checks of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. It is, however, a one-time payment, with limited effectiveness. A fourth federal relief package must include a second round of rebate checks in order to help Oregonians afford the basics during this crisis. As we explained in an earlier publication, these direct cash payments must be continuous throughout the crisis in order to provide stability to individuals and families.

Of equal importance is to leave no one behind. The next federal package should expand cash rebates to those the CARES Act left out, including dependents who are 17 or older, and adult dependents with disabilities. It also left out undocumented immigrants, including those with citizen children.

Prepare for a long crisis

Many of the provisions in the first three federal coronavirus relief packages are one-time or time- limited, with arbitrary end dates. Under those bills, funding to states must be spent by the end of the calendar year; options for adapting the SNAP program last only for the duration of the public health emergency. To provide an appropriate level of support, future federal funding should last for the duration of the need, tied to economic markers like unemployment and underemployment rates. Very little is known about how long this public health crisis will last, and the economic downturn is likely to persist long past then. We need federal relief that is prepared for the length of this crisis.

Adequate preparation also means providing funding to allow every state to hold a vote-by-mail presidential election. Oregon, of course, has already been on the cutting edge of voting access, showing that voting by mail is a secure and easy method, one that we need to replicate nationwide.

As the members of Oregon’s congressional delegation consider next steps in responding to this crisis, these six action items must be a priority.