With more than a third of households struggling to afford basic needs such as food and rent, President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion pandemic “rescue” package on Thursday that calls on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from the current floor of $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour.
A $15 minimum wage wasn’t Biden’s idea. For years, Fight for $15 and other grassroots movements have been organizing for a $15 federal wage floor, and it has long been a priority for Sen. Bernie Sanders and other progressives in Congress. Biden’s proposal represents a triumph for labor movements and progressive coalitions that have tirelessly pushed for a $15 minimum wage.
Biden’s rescue proposal also includes $1,400 per-person stimulus checks on top of the $600 approved by Congress last month; the president-elect is already facing pushback from some progressives who want a third round of checks at $2,000.
“$2,000 means $2,000. $2,000 does not mean $1,400,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post.
In addition to the checks, Biden is asking Congress to fund a range of relief measures aimed at households hit hardest by the pandemic and the economic downturn, including emergency paid sick leave for 106 million workers, extensions of emergency unemployment programs through September, and a $400 weekly unemployment supplement to help cover household expenses. New unemployment claims increased by 304,000 to 1.2 million last week, and more than 18 million people currently rely on unemployment insurance.
The package also includes $50 billion to expand coronavirus testing and lab capacity, and $20 billion for a national vaccination program that would partner with state and local governments. Citing the disparate toll the pandemic has taken on low-income communities and people of color, the package would also expand funding for community health centers located in underserved areas and fund 100,000 public health workers through a federal jobs program. Biden also proposes $130 billion in spending to help schools “safely reopen.”
“The very health of our nation is at stake,” Biden said during a televised speech on Thursday.
That’s no exaggeration. An estimated 90 million people say their households are unable to afford basic needs such as utilities, food and rent, according to analysis of federal data. About 29 million adults live in households that didn’t always have enough to eat during the week just before Christmas, an increase of 7 million people since August.
With Inauguration Day quickly approaching, Biden came under mounting pressure this week from progressive members of Congress and activists to take swift action and prevent evictions and utility shutoffs across the country. Researchers have linked evictions to increased spread of COVID-19 and housing inequality to higher rates of infection and death among Black, Latinx and Indigenous people.
“The inaction of the federal government and states and cities right now, as well as the actions of landlords, are really putting people at deep health risk,” said Pam Phan, a senior field organizer with the housing justice coalition Right to the City Alliance, in an interview.
Housing justice activists held rallies and protests in 19 cities this week, including at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, where activists constructed a “living room” outside the building. A moratorium on evictions issued by the CDC and extended by Congress will expire just 11 days after Biden takes office, putting millions at risk of losing housing as COVID rages. Biden’s stimulus proposal asks Congress to extend that moratorium and another on mortgage foreclosures until September.
However, Phan said the CDC eviction moratorium must be improved: It is currently full of loopholes, and activists are still fighting evictions in cities nationwide. Housing justice activists released a draft executive order this week urging Biden to take administrative action on housing without waiting for Congress, including working with the Department of Justice to cancel eviction court proceedings and hold landlords accountable for evicting tenants.
“Regardless of whether or not an eviction moratorium is in place, even in states that have strong protections [for renters] compared to the CDC order, we are still seeing landlords get around it,” Phan said. “We’re calling on the Justice Department to participate in creating the mechanisms to hold landlords accountable for unlawful violations and gross abuse of power during a pandemic.”
Phan said the eviction moratorium should stay in place for 90 days after the federal pandemic emergency declaration is finally lifted, giving renters a “transition period” to catch up on payments.
Last month, advocates estimated that renters owe landlords a collective $70 billion in back-rent. Biden’s transition team says that number is smaller — about $25 billion — and proposes $25 billion in emergency assistance for struggling renters on top of $25 billion approved by Congress last month. However, the Low-Income Housing Coalition says $100 billion in total emergency rental assistance and housing vouchers are needed to keep people in their homes.
While the Biden proposal would funnel an additional $5 billion through low-income assistance programs to help cover the cost of home energy and water bills, the package does not include a national moratorium on utility shut-offs as some had hoped.
“We know that water and other utility shutoffs disproportionately hurt our neighbors of color, and that it’s no coincidence these disparately impacted groups are also facing the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) in a statement urging the Biden administration to enact nationwide moratorium on utility shut-offs and reconnect water lines to households that already lost service.
With food insecurity reaching crisis levels, the Biden package would also boost Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15 percent and provide an additional $3 billion for a food assistance program covering low-income women and children. Biden also proposes $25 billion for struggling child care centers along with tax credits and an expanded block grant program to help parents cover the cost of child care.
While much of Biden’s “rescue” package is focused on keeping people — and the economy — afloat as the nation works to get the pandemic under control, the president-elect argues heavy federal investment would benefit the economy in the long-term. Finally raising the minimum wage to $15 — a longtime priority for progressives — would boost incomes and spending power for millions of workers after the pandemic subsides, especially in states where the wage floor is frozen at $7.25.
However, conservatives will likely oppose any minimum wage hike as businesses get back on their feet, and Republicans may baulk at the package’s $1.9 trillion price tag. A $2.1 trillion stimulus package pushed by House Democrats last year went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate, and Congress only agreed on a $900 billion package in a last-minute compromise last month. Democrats will hold a slim majority in Congress after Biden takes office, but it remains to be seen how this will play out among lobbyists and lawmakers.