Opinion: Congress must do its job and ease families’ suffering during the pandemic

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Courtesy of Robyn Hyden

Robyn Hyden, Alabama Arise

I woke up today angry about our country’s leadership crisis and how families with low incomes are suffering as a result. I could not stop thinking about members of Congress going on a month-long vacation while people in their districts go into the sixth straight month of staggeringly high unemployment, hunger and hardship.

I am angry when I hear the experiences of parents who lost their jobs months ago. Many struggled to access unemployment insurance benefits and scrambled to educate their kids and keep their families safe. Now, many of these same families have lost a significant portion of their UI benefits. They are unsure where their kids’ next meal is coming from, and they cannot afford to pay the rent or mortgage.

I am angry thinking about how we are treating child care workers, grocery store clerks, janitors and other essential workers. In the early days of the pandemic, our society publicly celebrated them for their role in keeping the economy going. But months later, many of these workers still do not have affordable health care, living wages, hazard pay or worker protections. They cannot walk off the job even if they feel the working conditions are putting their lives at risk. 

I am angry that lawmakers have not provided the resources that educational institutions need to operate safely during a pandemic. Access to protective equipment and broadband internet is uneven, and social distancing measures are often inadequate or difficult to enforce. Students, faculty and staff at the University of Alabama are suffering the consequences, as are schools and colleges across the state. 

I am angry because while the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive bill addressing these issues months ago, the Senate left without resolving anything. Meanwhile, the suffering continues to mount because of systemic failures. Eviction protections have evaporated, putting millions at risk of homelessness. The weekly $600 federal boost to our meager UI benefits has ended, leaving millions unable to make ends meet. Congress still has not boosted SNAP food assistance, making it harder for struggling families to keep food on the table.

 As COVID-19 rages on, the reality is painful but obvious. Without immediate congressional action, our nation is facing tremendous crises in homelessness, health care and education. 

Many of the comprehensive measures that Congress enacted in March, so successful at averting a more severe and immediate crisis, have now expired. Employers are asking parents to return to jobs without adequate child care or educational support for their children at home. People with mental health concerns and substance use disorders are struggling with feelings of isolation, anxiety and despair. More than 300,000 of our friends and neighbors in Alabama don’t even have health insurance. Workers have few outlets for support if they refuse to return to unsafe working conditions, and caregivers are being stretched to their limit.

The executive actions issued Aug. 8 did not solve any of these problems. They purported to address the eviction crisis, UI, student loan debt and payroll taxes. But these actions are little more than a Band-Aid over a gaping economic wound. The eviction action is little more than a flimsy suggestion. And the action related to unemployment is an inadequate stopgap, yet to be implemented, that would shift “significant administrative burdens and costs” onto states, as the bipartisan National Governors Association has noted.

Governance is not an easy task even in the best of times. Partisan fights and indecision over legislative priorities can hamper even the most well-intentioned lawmakers from making deals and addressing critical needs. But as we face the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression and the worst public health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic, going home to take a break is clearly the wrong decision.

Congress, step up and ease this suffering. Congress, do your job. 

Robyn Hyden is executive director of Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes. Email: robyn@alarise.org.