For many liberals, COVID-19 law is ‘more than a Band-Aid’ but ‘not big enough’

Shawn Fremstad on what the relief law gets right and where it falls short

Congressional Democrats celebrate the passage of the COVID-19 relief package at a March 10 bill enrollment ceremony on the Capitol’s West Front.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional Democrats celebrate the passage of the COVID-19 relief package at a March 10 bill enrollment ceremony on the Capitol’s West Front. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 31, 2021 at 6:30am

Democrats have touted the new $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law as part of a broader effort to combat racial and economic inequity in the United States, starting with an expanded child tax credit that will go to Americans with little or no income, as well as middle-income taxpayers.

The law also boosts subsidies for people buying health care on the individual market and includes new incentives to get more states to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, so that it reaches lower-middle-class people.

Shawn Fremstad, senior policy fellow at the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, recently joined CQ Roll Call’s Equal Time podcast to assess how much the new law accomplishes and how social justice activists see its shortcomings.

An edited transcript:

Q. The pandemic has shed a light on racial inequities across all policy areas. Let’s start with health care. Can you tell us about the bias that exists in that area?

A. Both Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are two times as likely to have died from COVID over the past year compared to white non-Hispanic Americans and that's controlling for things like age. A lot of that is rooted in things like disparities in the health care system, so things like access to health insurance, access to good treatment, but also just inequalities for low-income people who are more likely to be doing essential work that puts you at risk.

Q. You have also looked at housing insecurity before and during the pandemic. How did COVID make this a crisis?

A. Before COVID, the economy had been improving and there was some narrowing in these gaps. The lower unemployment gets, the more people are able to get decent jobs, the more we have a full employment economy. But COVID just turned that around.

Q. What about education?

A. When you have children learning at home, you have big differences in terms of access, internet connectivity and broadband connections, computers at home.

Q. I know you’ve done some studies on the issue of unemployment insurance and how it affects people of color. Can you explain?

A. COVID has very disproportionately affected the employment of people of color. It’s had a disproportionate effect particularly on mothers, single mothers. By contrast, if you’re a professional working in an office job, you’re probably in a situation where you’ve been able to stay in that job and work from home and you haven’t had serious income losses. 

Q. And many of these essential jobs are quite hazardous?

A. We looked at the demographics of essential workers and these are disproportionately working-class today. It means you have a lot of contact with people and you’re at a higher risk of COVID.

Q. Can this new relief bill address this systemic racism and inequities?

A. Let’s be serious, it will take more. I think of this as a start, but it can’t be the end. It can’t be the final thing. We’re already talking about what the next piece of big legislation is. I would say it’s making things that are temporary in this bill permanent, like the expanded child tax credit.

Q. What else should the Biden administration do?

A. One thing that is hugely important and [President Joe Biden] was very good on in his campaign is housing, particularly affordable rental housing, making sure that people aren’t having to pay 40, 50, 60 percent of their income on rent, and often for housing that is substandard. There have always been good housing programs like the housing choice vouchers that HUD runs, but they’ve been rationed. The Biden plan would be to make sure that everybody who qualifies for those gets one. 

Q. How much does this new bill do to solve these problems, or is it more of a Band-Aid?

A. It’s not big enough. I think it’s more than a Band-Aid though. It’s going to be very important to say why this is a start and we need to continue things that were done on a temporary basis in this bill. We also need to pass the $15 minimum wage. We need to move toward universal health care. We need to pass things like the Biden housing plan in its entirety.