THE PANDEMIC HAS SHONE A BRIGHT LIGHT on our country’s social safety net. Record numbers of Americans applied for unemployment. The federal government issued hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus checks. Federal and state programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), mortgage relief, rental assistance, even free vaccine delivery—all of which had trouble gaining bipartisan support in previous years— were quickly implemented as the crisis unfolded and millions of Americans lost jobs, fell ill or were sidelined at home caring for children whose schools and day care facilities were closed due to COVID.
Now, most of those benefits have ended or will soon: Over the summer, Americans lost federal protection from evictions and foreclosures. In September, pandemic unemployment insurance supplements expired nationwide, the expanded child tax credit followed suit at the end of the year and federal student loan payments, paused since March 2020, will resume in May. Even with those benefits expiring, though, it seems that COVID-19 taught us a valuable lesson about how seriously we need to take our social safety net. The Biden administration’s embattled $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan, would lay the groundwork for a stronger and more inclusive safety net with provisions to reduce the cost of child and health care, revive the expanded child tax credit and bolster state pre-K programs as well as help combat climate change.
Though the fate of the bill is unclear, there is no doubt that the debate over its provisions, combined with the programs created to cope with the pandemic, have revived the conversation around the importance of supporting our most vulnerable citizens in times of crisis. They’ve also highlighted a serious problem with the social safety net that far fewer people talk about: Many Americans can’t access the benefits they’re already eligible for.
Take, for instance, a child going to school. Even though the child is eligible for free public education, they still need a way to get to school, like a school bus. They need to get clear information about where and when to meet the bus. They need a safe route to walk from their home to the bus stop. The benefit of free education does nothing to help the child if the student cannot access their school via the school bus.
Never has the importance of access been more clear than during the past year. A combination of archaic systems, complex technology requirements and understaffed agencies meant that nine months into the pandemic, up to seven million people were still waiting to find out if they qualified for unemployment.
And it wasn’t just unemployment where problems cropped up. The government relied on banks to make PPP loans, creating an obstacle for borrowers who didn’t already have established banking relationships and leaving many small businesses, especially minority-owned small businesses, disproportionately underserved by the relief efforts, while larger, wealthier clients were prioritized. Gig and part-time workers earning less than $20,000 were waiting longer than their more affluent peers, in some cases more than four months. Even stimulus checks, delivered automatically, came with issues of access for individuals who earned too little to file taxes, didn’t have a bank account, were incarcerated or experiencing homelessness—all groups disproportionately needing the aid.
“A safety net that denies access, intentionally or not, is unacceptable,” says economist Claudia Sahm, a senior fellow at the Jain Family Institute and former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Workers at a Florida food bank distribute groceries early in the pandemic.
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