By Ben Jealous
Fair warning: this isn’t a traditional Christmas-week column.
If we think of clarity as a kind of gift, though, we can be grateful that the effort to pass a much-needed COVID-19 relief bill in the waning days of this Congress makes one thing crystal clear: hurting families and small businesses will be abandoned if Republicans keep control of the U.S. Senate by winning Georgia’s January 5 runoff elections.
There is some good news. The $900 billion package includes emergency relief for renters, families, small businesses, and more. That relief, that, includes direct help to individuals, is urgently needed. It will extend some protections against evictions for another month. It will give small business owners a little more breathing space to try to survive the pandemic.
About 12 million unemployed people who were going to be cut off at the end of the year will receive $300 weekly in federal support and an extension of the unemployment assistance program until mid-March.
All this is necessary. But it is a temporary fix that falls far short of addressing the pain people are experiencing and truly setting us on the road to recovery.
Almost 12 million renters will be behind on their rent by an average of almost $6,000 at the end of this month, according to one study. The Census Bureau says that about 29 percent of Black families are behind on rent. Much of the back rent has piled up since unemployment benefits under the CARES Act—the first relief bill—expired during the summer. According to some estimates, as many as 20 million tenants—about the population of Florida—are at risk of eviction.
With a problem that huge, David Dworkin, CEO of the National Housing Conference, told MarketWatch that the bill’s $25 billion in rental assistance is just a band-aid, “a practical start for staving off the immediate threat of mass evictions across the country.”
Because the bill falls short of what is needed, some people are blaming “Congress” generally.
Let’s get real. If congressional Republicans had their way, there would have been no bill—or a far worse one.
Republicans have been resisting a meaningful relief bill for months. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told President Trump not to make a deal with Democratic lawmakers before the election. He tried to hold the current bill hostage to a provision that would make it harder to hold big companies accountable for providing unsafe workplaces. Another Republican senator held up the bill to try to impose restrictions on the Biden administration’s options for encouraging economic recovery.
Look at what the Senate Republicans proposed at the beginning of December. Their plan had no new money for federal employment and a January 31 cutoff for extensions in unemployment insurance.
The Republican plan had zero dollars—zero!—for rental assistance.
The Republican plan had zero dollars—zero!—for direct relief to individuals and families.
The Republican plan had zero dollars—zero!—for the SNAP nutritional assistance program often known as food stamps.
Millions of people will get emergency help because Democratic congressional leaders refused to accept Republicans’ demands.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is famous for using and abusing his power to stop legislation dead in its tracks. I believe there is only one reason he agreed to the compromise: he knew that throwing millions of Americans off unemployment and out of their homes just before Christmas would have encouraged Georgia voters to make sure that Republicans and McConnell don’t hang onto power in the next Senate. But Georgia voters are smarter than that and will see through Mitch McConnell’s schemes.
President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and Democratic congressional leaders know that much more is needed to help Americans get through the current economic crisis. They’ll only be able to give Americans what we need if we give them what they need—victory in the Georgia Senate races and a Democratically-controlled Senate.
So, try to find some time this holiday season to join one of the many efforts that are encouraging Black voters in Georgia to show up for the Senate runoff elections the way they did in November. It’s not very often that voters have a chance to shift the direction of the country twice in just two months. Let’s make it happen.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.