After nine months of failing to pass a COVID relief bill and neglecting the needs of millions of children and families suffering the unprecedented public health, racial justice, and economic and unemployment crisis brought on by this pandemic, Congress will finally vote on a long overdue bipartisan relief bill. This weekend, Congressional leadership came to agreement on a $900 billion COVID relief package built largely off of a bipartisan framework released by lawmakers earlier this month. This package is an important step forward and must be passed by Congress and signed into law by the President immediately. While the package will help offer some relief to millions of children and families, it ultimately falls far short of the robust and continued relief that is desperately needed to weather the pandemic, especially for Black, Latino, and Indigenous families who have been hit hardest. Congress must immediately return to work in January and pass an additional, robust relief package that puts children and families first.
The $900 billion relief package includes some critically important — and long overdue — provisions to help bring some relief for children and families. These include:
- A one-time direct check of $600 for adults and children that expands eligibility to mixed-status families qualifying for the first time. These payments are cut in half from the CARES Act which provided $1,200 for each adult (though only $500 for child dependents) and are available to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and couples making up to $150,000 per year. Eligible individuals in families with mixed immigration status will now receive stimulus checks, and that change is also retroactive to CARES Act payments, meaning those individuals who were excluded from the first round of relief last spring will be made whole. While critical changes were made and these payments will help millions of children and families, this provision still falls short of the $2,000 needed for every child and adult, and excludes adult dependents, some older youth, underbanked communities, and many citizen children in immigrant households where no parent files taxes with a Social Security Number.
- A temporary “lookback” provision for the Child Tax Credit (CTC) & Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A critical inclusion to the bill allows families to use their earned income from 2019 for the purpose of determining the value of their refundable CTC and EITC next year. Because the value of these credits rise as family income rises, this “lookback” provision will increase the value of the credits for many families who experienced job and income loss in 2020 due to the pandemic. As a positive, but not comprehensive move to make critical improvements to the tax credits, millions of children and families will get more money in their refund next year.
- $13 billion for nutrition assistance, including a temporary increase in monthly SNAP benefits by 15 percent for six months until June 30, 2021 as well as critical financial assistance for Puerto Rico, America Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The bill also excludes Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) from being counted as SNAP benefits; provides $5 million for the SNAP online purchasing program; expands the Pandemic-EBT program to cover families with children in child care under 6 who live in households receiving SNAP and in areas where there is limited school or child care capacity; provides $400 million for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) through FY21 to support food banks and pantries; increases emergency funding and reimbursements for school and child care meal programs that have experienced significant financial loss; and supports the creation of a new task force on food delivery models in the WIC program. Critically, these provisions will help the millions of children and families across the country put food on the table and stay fed and healthy.
- $25 billion in emergency rental assistance for the first time ever to state and local governments and an extension of the current CDC eviction moratorium until January 31, 2021. Of the $25 billion, $800 million is set aside as assistance for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and $400 million is designated for U.S. territories. Renter households can apply for up to 18 months of assistance through local designated entities that are chosen from state and local governments. Most importantly, the program directs spending to families earning below 80 percent of their area median income (AMI) who are at risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability and have experienced pandemic-related hardship, with special priority for families with lower incomes at 50 percent AMI and those experiencing longer-term unemployment due to the pandemic. This emergency money, which can be used to cover rent, utilities, and other housing costs – including back rent accumulated since the beginning of the pandemic – will help millions of children and families stay healthy and safe in their homes during the critical winter months. The money is also not counted as income for purposes of other assistance programs. While this aid falls short of the full emergency funding needed to keep children and families safely in their homes, it is a step in the right direction.
- An extension and expansion of all pandemic unemployment insurance programs for 11 weeks to March 14, 2021. This bill also includes a smaller extension of the unemployment boost known as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which expired in July, by $300 per week (originally $600) for 11 weeks from December 26, 2020 until March 14, 2021.
- Increased funding and regulatory changes to help stabilize families and prevent children from entering foster care, including an increase of federal reimbursement for the Title IV-E Prevention Program to 100 percent and $85 million in the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program to help support birth, foster, adoptive, and kinship families and to help child welfare courts adapt to the pandemic.
- Support for relatives caring for children by increasing federal support for Kinship Navigator Programs and temporarily waiving the evidence standard required for federal reimbursement to help reach more kinship caregivers and provide them with access to resources and information they need to safely care for children.
- A moratorium on allowing young people to age out of foster care and dramatically increased resources to help older youth successfully transition to adulthood. The bill provides $400 million to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood and adjusted program requirements to better meet these youths’ unique needs during the pandemic. The bill also keeps more young people connected to supports and safe housing by placing a moratorium on youth “aging out” of foster care and by allowing youth who have already aged out during the pandemic to re-enter care.
- Increased funding for K-12 education and higher education including $82 billion in funding for the Education Stabilization Fund, $54.3 billion for the Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, $22.7 billion for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, $4.1 billion for the CARES Act Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and $819 million in relief for territories and the Bureau of Indian Education.
- $10.25 billion to support child care providers including $10 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grants to provide immediate assistance to child care providers as well as $250 million for the Head Start program. This funding is nowhere near the more than $50 billion needed to ensure parents can get back to work and child care providers can stay afloat.
- $12 billion for Minority Depository Institutions (MDI) and Community Financial Development Institutions (CDFI) to provide targeted emergency investments and financial support through loans and grants to help low-income and minority communities weather the economic impact of pandemic.
- Funding to increase access to broadband, including a new Emergency Broadband Benefit to help millions of students, families, and unemployed workers afford the broadband they need during the pandemic.
- A ban on surprise medical billing for emergency and scheduled care.
- Funding for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and vaccine development and distribution, including $25.4 billion in funding to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to support testing and contact tracing as well as $8.75 billion in funding to the CDC to support federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal public health agencies in distributing and administering coronavirus vaccines.
- No extension of the requirement to provide emergency paid sick or family leave. Instead, the bill includes a provision through a tax credit through March 31, 2021 to support employers offering paid sick leave. This tax credit excludes employers with more than 500 employees, does not expand eligible uses of paid leave, and is in lieu of a continuation of the mandate for many businesses to offer paid leave and paid sick leave.
While this package was a step in the right direction under a strict timeline ahead of the holidays, it does not include many additional provisions that are needed to fully meet the needs of all our nation’s children and families, especially the most vulnerable. As Congress gets back to the negotiating table on additional relief in the New Year, the needs of children and families must be front and center.