COVID relief bill could permanently alter social safety net

In this March 10, 2021, photo, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gestures after the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was passed at the Capitol in Washington. Bidens $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
In this March 10, 2021, photo, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gestures after the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was passed at the Capitol in Washington. Bidens $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty.

With more than $6 billion for food security-related programs, more than $25 billion in emergency rental assistance, nearly $10 billion in emergency mortgage aid for homeowners, and extensions of already-expanded unemployment payments through early September, the package is full of provisions designed to help families and individuals survive and recover from pandemic-induced economic hardships.

“When you stand back and look at it, that’s when you really can appreciate the sheer scope of it,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research & Action Center, a food-security advocacy group. “The scope is both impressive and much needed.”

Several aspects seem targeted at restructuring the country's social safety net and actually lifting people out of poverty. It's the kind of ambition and somewhat old school Democratic Party ideal that has observers referencing former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

“We haven't seen a shift like this seen since FDR. It’s saying families are too big to fail, children are too big to fail, the elderly are too big to fail,” said Andre Perry, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a recognition that the social safety net is not working and was not working prior to the pandemic.”

Biden himself, when signing the package into law Thursday, referenced it as an overt attempt to redraw the country's economic fault lines in a way that's bigger than the pandemic. “This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country and giving people in this nation, working people and middle-class folks, the people who built the country -- a fighting chance,” Biden said.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it "one of the most transformative and historic bills any of us will ever have the opportunity to support.”

Perry in particular pointed to the expansion of the child tax credit system as a potentially foundational change. The legislation provides families with up to $3,600 this year for each child and also expands the credit to millions of families currently making too little to qualify for the full benefits.