It's both deeply unfortunate and somehow fitting that the official anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States comes on the day President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, passed by both chambers of the U.S. Congress. It is a year too late to prevent more than half a million deaths and millions of lives being fundamentally disrupted, but it's the plan we need right now, the plan then-candidate Joe Biden called for one year ago tomorrow. "We must do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes," he said on March 12, 2020. "This crisis will hit everyone, but it will hit people who live paycheck to paycheck the hardest. Another tax cut … will not get the job done."
By March 27, 2020, Congress had responded with over $2 trillion in emergency aid culminating in the CARES Act. And then ... that was nearly all. For months and months Senate Republicans held firm, refusing even Donald Trump's exhortations for another round of $2,000 checks for everyone until the end of December, when Sen. Mitch McConnell's fear of losing the two Georgia Senate seats made him finally relent and pass the $900 billion relief bill at the last possible moment. Finally, though, Biden's vision has started to come to fruition. There will have to be more, because the virus isn't done yet and we haven't yet reckoned with the full extent of the damage done by a year of governmental neglect.
There's a tremendous lot of good in the bill Biden signed Thursday. Here's a comprehensive but succinct overview of the whole thing, the highlights of which follow.
The bill doesn't just continue pandemic benefits for the unemployed, it's preventing further job losses and potentially restoring some jobs. The $28.3 billion specifically for restaurants and bars got a big cheer from the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a group formed expressly to press for direct aid to nonchain restaurants last year. "This is a decisive moment for the independent restaurant and bar community," the organization's executive director, Erika Polmar, said in a statement. "Independent restaurants and bars came together at the beginning of the pandemic with the hope that by working together for the first time, our industry could make a big impact—and that's what we did." The National Restaurant Association's Sean Kennedy echoed that: "The Senate passage of the American Rescue Plan means we have turned the corner and can see the finish line,” adding it will "put us on the road to recovery." It provides grants up to $5 million for restaurants in need, and $10 million for multilocation restaurant owners. Grants are based on the business' 2019 sales, minus what was lost in 2020, with about 20% of total funds reserved for restaurants that had less than $500,000 in 2019 revenue to make sure that the smallest of operations will get help.
Another targeted industry, the airline industry, is celebrating. American Airlines had notified remaining employees they were going to be laid off as of April 1. Those 13,000 employees just got a new notice: "For our 13,000 colleagues who received worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) notices last month, those are happily cancelled—you can tear them up!" They also added this minor dig at Republicans who unanimously opposed the legislation: "If you see your local Congressional representative on a flight, be sure to thank her or him for their work this past year and for recognizing the noble work you all do every day." United also cancelled lay-offs for 14,000 employees. "By extending PSP, our teams will be able to remain current in their training and ready to match expected future demand," United CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement. "Thousands of frontline workers will now receive paychecks and health care through September, which is especially critical while vaccine distribution continues to ramp up." The airlines get $14 billion for payroll support, $8-plus billion for airports, and $13 billion in ongoing paid leave for TSA and FAA employees to help air travel return.
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) will receive an additional $7.25 billion and more nonprofits will now be allowed to apply for forgivable loans to help cover payroll and other operating expenses. (Disclosure: Kos Media received a Paycheck Protection Program loan.) The PPP's current application deadline of March 31, 2021, is not extended. There's an additional $15 billion to the Small Business Administration for $10,000 grants to small businesses including nonprofits and arts and entertainment venues.
Unemployment assistance for those who can't return back to work right away or whose 2019 jobs might have been lost forever extends through Sept. 6. That means 11.4 million out-of-work people—full-time, self-employed workers, gig-economy workers, and people who have had to quit their jobs to care for family members and children—won't lose their benefits in the next few weeks (though because it expires March 14, there might be hiccups in some states that will need to catch up). The bill extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits of $300 a week through Sept. 6, 2021 and increases the total number of weeks available from 50 to 79. That's the program for those workers not normally eligible for UI, including those long-term unemployed who have exhausted eligibility. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefits of $300 are also extended through Sept. 6, 2021 for people who have been getting regular unemployment.
Oh, and those millions of people won't get hit with surprise federal tax bills for the first $10,200 in UI they received in 2020 unless they made more than $150,000 last year. Which seems highly unlikely, so that's practically all of the unemployed.
There's also a long-overdue boost to Black farmers, carving $5 billion for farmers of color out of the $10.4 billion supporting American agriculture.
There's so much here intended to help people stay fed, housed, and clothed. There's a reason why this bill is going to lift so many families out of poverty—starting with the $1,400 survival checks, which will go to everyone, adults and children. The payments start to phase out for individuals who made more than $75,000 in their most recent tax filing (2019 or 2020), ending at $80,000. The limits for joint filers start at $150,000 and stop at $160,000.
The federal eviction and foreclosure moratoriums are not extended in this legislation; that could still come in an executive action. But the bill includes $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; and $5 billion to assist people experiencing homelessness.
It extends the 15% increase in food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through Sept. 30, 2021. There's $1.15 billion more for states to administer SNAP, and $1 billion more in nutrition assistance for for the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and American Samoa. There's $490 million for the USDA to increase the amount of the cash-value vouchers under the WIC program for Women, Infants, and Children and $390 million to increase participation in WIC. People up to age 25 in emergency shelters can eat thanks to an expansion of the school lunch program, which will continue through the summer for all children who need it.
Speaking of children, if the expanded child tax credit included in the bill is made permanent, it will cement Biden's legacy along with FDR and LBJ in the fight against poverty. It is huge, providing 97% of American families with children up to $300 a month per child. That provision alone would cut child poverty nearly in half, lifting some 10 million children out of poverty. The payments being changed from an end-of-year lump sum to a monthly payment will provide stability for millions of families. It will also give them some additional disposable income to help the economy rebound. It could allow more people to enter the workforce, making child care easier to afford.
Survival also means ending the virus. There's $7.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to plan, distribute, and track the vaccines; $1 billion to the CDC for outreach to the public to try to stem vaccine hesitation or avoidance in a distrustful public; $46 billion for testing and tracing coronavirus infections; and $2 billion would go toward buying and distributing various testing supplies and personal protective equipment.
It includes more than $128 billion in grants for state educational agencies, with 90% of that earmarked for local agencies. There's also $39 billion grants for higher education. Child care facilities are included, too, with $15 billion directed to the Child Care & Development Block Grant program. That's boosted with another $1 billion for Head Start.
Thinking ahead, the Senate included a boost for the millions of people holding student load debt. Debt forgiveness can't be considered as income in federal taxes through 2025. That means any move by Biden or the Congress to cancel student debt won't come back to bite those same debt holders with big tax bills. Smart move.
State, local, and tribal governments
The public sector has been bleeding jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. There's $350 billion for the government tin the bill, with 57% allocated to states and the remainder of local governments. The funds can be used to respond to the public health emergency, including assistance to households or businesses, and to fund services that have been cut because of loss of revenue. It also has funding for infrastructure investments, including broadband. There's a specific carve-out of $8.5 billion for rural governments. The Indian Health Service gets nearly $6.1 billion, and there's hundreds of millions more for tribal housing, education, and health.
There really is no aspect of public life that won’t be touched—helped—by this legislation. There will have to be more. The damage Trump and Republicans have done economically, culturally, and socially is going to take years to undo. But this is a damned good down payment. One that helps just about everybody, except possibly the elected Republicans who have fought it so hard.