Nearly six years ago, stuck at the edge of a financial chasm, my parents were forced to choose: Scrape a few extra dollars together for dinner; put money aside to save for an apartment; or pay the storage unit bill.
Setting our limited income aside to rent an apartment would have freed my family from years of homelessness. On the other hand, our dinner would have been canned ravioli and gravy sandwiches for weeks, and we would have lost all the belongings in our storage unit — the remaining photo albums, furniture, and toys from our foreclosed home. Spending too much money on food and the storage payments would have left my stepfather with no gas to get to work and no funds to pay our phone bill. Years of hustling to make ends meet left my family exhausted, physically and emotionally. In the end, we chose to save our storage container, resigned to the temporary shutdown of our phones and ramen noodles.
Ours is a familiar story to too many Americans, especially now.
As the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise and its impact on the economy extends into another year, many Americans are faced with reduced incomes and unemployment, increasing hunger, and the uncertainty of eviction. While there have been nationwide calls for people to stay home to stop the spread of the disease, members of Congress have not supplemented those in need with sufficient cash payments over the past 11 months to ensure compliance. Many are now forced to work on the front-lines to survive, some of whom had lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Recent proposals for one-time payment would provide relief to individuals making less than $75,000, “phasing them out until they end completely at $100,000.” Couples who make $150,000 would receive $2,800 in relief payments; those earning above $200,000 would not qualify under this plan. These means-tested proposals will disqualify millions of Americans who benefited from previous relief payments, leaving some vulnerable populations ill supported and others ineligible. Counterproposals have advocated for $2,000 survival checks, such as the Monthly Economic Crisis Support Act, cosponsored by Senator Ed Markey. Dispersed through the remainder of the pandemic, these monthly payments would provide individuals and families with consistent relief, allowing them to cover their basic needs while saving for potential emergencies.
Since the beginning of rolling COVID-19 shutdowns in the United States, eligible Americans have received two total stimulus payments through the CARES Act and through the most recent relief bill passed under the Trump administration. Over nine months, many American people saw $1,800 in their bank accounts in combined federal stimulus money.
For those who are struggling to survive during a deadly pandemic, these meager appropriations have little effect. With family members forced to work long hours in front-line jobs most exposed to the virus, household stress is exacerbated. Every day, low-income retail and service workers face the risk of catching COVID-19 and incurring thousands of dollars in medical costs. When they experience a car accident or breakdown, the price to repair or replace the car imposes consequences far beyond the initial cost: limited transportation to work, dwindling funds, and emotional stress. Piles of overdue bills stack up on the counter, untouched.
Skyrocketing housing costs force families to choose between paying their rent, putting food on the table, or preparing for another unanticipated emergency. The consequences of this decision are dire: the empty cart at the grocery store or the knock on the door by the local sheriff forcing them onto the street. One compounding crisis can nullify any savings, never mind a stimulus check that barely covers one month in rent. When the potential for future stimulus is uncertain, $1,400 can spread only so far.
Many members of Congress continue to discredit the urgency of stimulus checks during the pandemic, showing a lack of awareness of the lived experience of the poor and the working class. Not only is it immoral for a millionaire-dominated Congress to continue to block cash payments for needy families, but prior relief plans have also failed to ensure continuing economic stability for these groups. For some, these promised checks never arrived, while others were excluded, such as adult dependents and college students. Many students graduated into a pandemic with reduced employment opportunities and impending student loan payments.
President Biden promised that if Democrats won the Senate, $2,000 stimulus checks would be sent out “immediately.” Biden’s recent policy proposals have instead called for the distribution of a $1,400 stimulus, considering the $600 cash infusion that was allocated to Americans in the last stimulus package. A small stimulus payment dispersed a month ago does nothing to support the costs of today for parents who face their hungry children with ramen and amass months of overdue rent payments in pandemic conditions.
Existing policy proposals are inadequate. They fail to support the most vulnerable exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the working class and the poor, every dollar counts when faced with an impossible trade-off. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, Biden and members of Congress must give the American people the money they need to stay at home. By passing $2,000 survival checks for each month during the duration of the pandemic, they will disrupt the cycle of poverty and allow families to recover.
Timothy Scalona is a graduate student at UMass Amherst.