Updated March 16th, 2020. With COVID-19 (coronavirus) panic sweeping the world, American legislators are trying frantically to get bills passed to address the problems both the virus and precautionary measures will cause.
Among those bills are several, or components thereof, that aim to ensure people will have enough food during the crisis. Many temporary, retail, and hourly employees will lose their jobs; those who were already struggling to make ends meet will only find that things get worse. Civil Eats has a rundown of two of the major bills designed to keep the country fed: one is a major package, and one focuses on childhood nutrition, especially in schools.
The second bill is a little easier to explain, so let’s start there. School meals are vital to American children; roughly 30 million kids receive free or reduced-price school lunch. But with directions to close institutions where people are in close proximity, many schools are closing, with more to come. That leaves kids without a way to eat.
The COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act is an attempt to create more flexibility in the school meals programs, allowing schools to distribute those meals in some way despite the schools themselves being closed. That flexibility is already possible, but what isn’t currently possible without this bill is the degree to which it can be used. This bill is mostly about waivers, because of a very weird rule: There is a program that allows free meals to be served in this manner, but it only lets that happen in places where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible.
That means that needy kids in slightly wealthier areas—we’re not talking Beverly Hills, we’re talking your normal middle-class towns—would be shut out of receiving the free meals they ordinarily would have. This new bill, which has bipartisan support, grants waivers so that any child who qualifies for nutrition assistance can actually get it.
The other bill, sometimes referred to as the Families First bill, is a huge assistance package, aimed at helping Americans deal with the new reality of coronavirus. Written by House Democrats, the bill includes paid sick leave (because many people are going to get sick), increased levels of unemployment insurance, free testing for coronavirus, and two new food provisions. One of those provisions would increase SNAP benefits, which has a few different upsides. For one thing, many people who use SNAP also work the exact kinds of lower-paying jobs that can’t be done from home, and are thus vulnerable to losing them, so it ensures that the neediest people can afford food. For another thing, SNAP is an effective economic engine, tremendously helpful for local economies.
The second food provision would block the Trump administration’s attempts to slash SNAP benefits, which are scheduled to go into effect in April. Those cuts are predicted to kick around 3 million people off the program, and it sure doesn’t seem like the time to kick people off of nutrition assistance.
That bill experienced obstacles. According to the New York Times, the sticking points are on two issues. Paid sick leave is a major part of the Democratic platform, and the Republicans seem to be unwilling to grant what could be seen as a victory, even if paid sick leave would be a vital protection during a pandemic. The other is, unbelievably, abortion. Republicans are trying to insert Hyde Amendment protections into the bill, which would bar the use of any federal funds—and there are a lot of federal funds being issued in this package—for abortions. Roughly a billion dollars within the bill would go towards reimbursements for laboratory bills, which Republicans fear, despite the fact that there is a pandemic going on which requires laboratory visits, would be used for abortions. Right wing commentators have picked this up and phrased it as “a billion dollars for free abortions,” which is not at all accurate according to any reporting on the deliberations.
On Saturday, the House of Representatives passed the bill, with 40 Congresspeople voting against it—all Republicans. But the process of compromise left major holes in the bill. Companies of more than 500 people will not be required to provide paid sick leave at all, while companies of fewer than 50 people will be permitted to apply for waivers to avoid paid sick leave. This leaves only about 20 percent of the working population covered by paid sick leave—hardly the outcome hoped for by those seeking to ensure workers’ financial stability.
The bill is being examined in the Senate on Monday, March 16th, though some Republican Senators have indicated that there will have to be changes to the House-passed bill to win their approval. Other reports indicate that there are various holdups in the Senate, including a totally unrelated foreign intelligence bill, whether businesses can afford to pay these wages, and a further delay that might involve sending the bill back to the House for revision before it can pass the Senate. In short, there is no bill, and the death toll continues to rise.
We will continue to update this post as events warrant.