The coronavirus has pummeled working-class people in this country.
In New York City, the death rate is twice as high in the blue-collar Bronx as it is in more affluent Manhattan. And the economic collapse triggered by the shutdown of the economy has hit low-wage workers especially hard. Nationwide, almost 40 percent of people working in February with a household income below $40,000 reported a job loss in March.
But if the struggle is especially intense now, it isn’t new. The pandemic is exacerbating a longstanding precarity.
The grocery store clerks, health aides, and delivery workers who have held the country together these last couple of months have struggled to pay the rent — and to keep the stress of poverty from poisoning their children’s lives — for years now.
In the coming weeks and months, then, Congress must work not only to get these vital, vulnerable workers through the pandemic, but also to put them on more solid footing in the long term.
For now, one thing is required above all else: regular, upfront infusions of cash. Congress provided one such infusion when it agreed to temporarily boost unemployment checks by $600 per week as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) stimulus bill that President Trump signed into law in late March. But that $600 boost is scheduled to expire at the end of July. And congressional Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, have said they won’t renew it.
That would be a big mistake.
Without that extra money, millions of workers would have to rely on standard unemployment benefits. And those benefits are just a fraction of regular pay — designed to prop up laid-off workers for a time and encourage them to look for new jobs. The problem, of course, is that new jobs will be enormously difficult to find in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In addition to renewing the $600 unemployment boost, lawmakers should expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. An enhanced benefit would not only attend to the nutritional needs of struggling families — with proven, long-term benefits for the health and academic success of millions of children — it would also be an especially efficient stimulus. Research shows that families quickly spend their SNAP benefits, redeeming 80 percent within two weeks and 97 percent within a month.
If we’re able to get through the immediate economic crisis, we’ll still be living with the sharp inequalities revealed by the pandemic. To address them, Congress should build on two programs that have already lifted millions out of poverty: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit.
The EITC acts as a wage subsidy for low- and moderate-wage workers, allowing them to claim credits of several thousand dollars on their taxes — the precise amount varying by income, marital status, and size of family. And it’s a refundable credit, meaning workers with little or no tax liability to wipe out get a check from the federal government.
Legislation proposed by Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Ron Wyden of Oregon would expand the EITC by about 25 percent for families with children. It would also fix one of the program’s biggest shortcomings: its meager payout for childless workers.
Many of these workers are young, poorly paid men trying to get a foothold in the labor market. The legislation would make more of them eligible for the credit and increase the maximum benefit from about $530 to about $2,100.
The bill would also improve on the child tax credit program, which provides credits of $2,000 per child for most American families. At present, only a portion of the credits are refundable, meaning low-wage families get only small checks in the mail.
The legislation would make them fully refundable. It would also increase the credits from $2,000 to $3,000 for children under age 6 — providing extra support for kids at an especially critical developmental stage.
The benefits of these kinds of payments can be enormous. Research has found small increases in poor families’ incomes are associated with better test scores and health outcomes for their children. One study found that $3,000 in additional income between a child’s prenatal year and fifth birthday was associated with a 17 percent hike in annual earnings when the child became an adult and started working.
Overall, the legislation would boost the incomes of 114 million low- and moderate-income people, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank, and slash the childhood poverty rate — much higher here than in other industrialized countries — by almost one-third.
The measure’s political prospects are reasonably good. It enjoys near-unanimous support among Senate Democrats. And the Democratically controlled House included similar, temporary provisions in the $3 trillion stimulus bill it approved earlier this month.
If Democrats win control of Washington in the fall, they must push ahead. And Republicans, who have historically been supportive of the EITC and child tax credits, should step up too. The consequences of our dangerously lopsided economy have never been more evident. Inequality, it’s clear, can be deadly. And it is time for lawmakers to act.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.