Policy practitioners working on economic mobility are facing an unprecedented challenge as the coronavirus pandemic rips through the U.S. economy. Two bills recently passed by Congress and signed into law are meant to help ease the economic burden. Below, we have compiled some of the changes to federal policy that people working with disadvantaged communities at the local level need to know.

Why should we focus on low-income families during this crisis?

The number of unemployment claims resulting from layoffs due to COVID-19 is unprecedented, and layoffs and even reduction in hours will cause untold damage. Even before the current public health and economic crisis, most Americans were living paycheck to paycheck; prior to COVID-19 only 61 percent of Americans had the resources to cover an unexpected expense of $400.  Because workers making at or near the minimum wage are likely to work in service-based jobs like healthcare support or food service, many are not able to work from home, putting them at risk of infection or being laid off. Low-wage workers are less likely to have access to employer-sponsored health insurance and paid sick leave.  And even when social distancing is possible, Dr. Stefanie DeLuca writes, the costs for this population can be brutal.

Congress passed two major pieces of legislation in late March that include provisions meant to help low-income families. If you’re a local government practitioner working on food assistance, social services, housing, or workforce and employment issues, you may be wondering what this new legislation means for your work. Below, we have summarized the policy changes that will affect residents in your area who are struggling economically.

Workforce and employment

Unemployment insurance claims have skyrocketed as states and localities have shut down businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with more than 6 million people filing for unemployment in the last week of March alone. Even during the Great Recession, unemployment never rose this sharply, making unemployment insurance a key part of the response to the pandemic’s fallout. The CARES Act created three new programs that address eligibility and benefit amounts. Collectively, these programs expand eligibility for unemployment insurance to self-employed workers, contractors, part-time workers, freelancers, and nonprofit and government workers; provide an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits; and add 13 weeks of benefits. 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provides $1 billion to states to help deal with this influx – the first $500 million is for making certain improvements to unemployment insurance programs, and the next half is triggered when a state’s unemployment rate increases by ten percent or more. FFCRA also requires some private employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, becoming the first federal law to do so. Employers with fewer than 500 employees must provide two weeks of paid sick leave to employees who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or must quarantine themselves or care for a child, or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 

Local relief

A headline for local governments is the $150 billion the CARES Act allocates for state, tribal, and local governments to address budgetary problems related to the virus. Each state will receive at least $1.25 billion according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which also produced this state-by-state breakdown of how the funding will be distributed. 

The CARES Act also includes infusions to existing grants and programs that are implemented at the local level, most of which were funded in 2009 in response to the Great Recession.

  • $5 billion for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is allocated directly to state and local governments;
  • $3.5 billion to states for the Child Care Development Block Grant to support child care providers and provide child care assistance to essential workers
  • $1 billion for the Community Service Block Grant;
  • $750 million for Head Start; 
  • $1.5 billion for economic adjustment assistance;
  • $453 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to prepare for and respond to the coronavirus;
  • $10 billion for Small Business Administration (SBA) emergency grants of up to $10,000 to provide immediate relief for operating costs.

Nutrition Assistance

The CARES Act allocates an additional $15.5 million to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while also making temporary yet critical changes to the law that mean that eligibility and implementation are now easier. For instance, work and training requirements to receive SNAP benefits are temporarily suspended.

Children who would receive free meals at school but whose school has been closed for at least five consecutive days can now receive food benefits electronically. These benefits can be used wherever SNAP is accepted.

USDA Department of Food Nutrition Services has granted a waiver to each state to  serve meals through federally-funded child nutrition programs without requiring children to eat in a congregate setting. The bill also gives the authority to waive the requirement that meals meet a certain nutrition standard if the food supply is disrupted.

Changes to nutrition assistance programs also include a temporary infusion of $500 million for mothers and pregnant women who may be newly eligible for WIC due to the virus. The bill authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to waive requirements for women to be physically present in WIC clinics for bloodwork.

Also, $250 million is dedicated to the Senior Nutrition program through grants to states, territories and eligible tribal organizations.

Housing

The legislation dedicates $4 billion to serving people experiencing homelessness and those at risk of eviction, in part through rapid rehousing and rental deposit assistance. 

Another $3 billion will help the most vulnerable among us to stay in their homes or access temporary housing. The funding will help keep people in voucher and public housing households housed; support the elderly and individuals with disabilities with rental assistance; and maintain rental assistance and offer temporary relocation services for people with AIDS.

The bills also dedicate $300 million to Native American housing, and $900 million to help lower-income households heat and cool their homes.

Public Health

Local, state and federal public health agencies will receive $4.3 billion for prevention and preparation related to the virus. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) will get $200 million specifically to reduce and prevent the spread of the virus in nursing homes.