We have witnessed the death and devastation that COVID-19 has brought to millions of people across the country this past year. The pandemic revealed the flaws and cracks in our social safety net and the gaps in law and policy that left too many of us unprotected. At the same time, the pandemic has exposed, more clearly than ever, the racial inequities and disparities that exist at every level of our society. COVID’s disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people — especially women of color — has shocked our national conscience, as it should. But it should come as no surprise that our current reality is a symptom of the deeply rooted systemic racism we know has long existed but have not fully confronted. The ACLU has prioritized systemic equity, and the COVID relief bill is certainly a vehicle for advancing these goals.
The COVID relief bill is now moving through the House and will reach the Senate soon. The expectation is that it will go to President Biden in mid-March. The bill takes important steps to address the spread and impact of the coronavirus but it also provides another opportunity to address some of the policies and practices that have harmed Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Congress can begin this critical racial justice work by taking the following actions:
1. Address the mass eviction crisis
Our country is facing a looming mass eviction crisis with stark racial and gender disparities. Black and Latinx households have been hit significantly harder by COVID-19, and in turn, they have been twice as likely as white tenants to report that they have little to no ability to make rent each month. Without immediate action by the federal government, households of color, particularly Black women-led households, will be left to weather this storm on their own. The harms of eviction run deep. Having an eviction on your record results in blacklisting, as many landlords will not even consider an applicant with a prior eviction filing, even if they won their case. Eviction records follow people for years, stigmatizing already vulnerable groups and blocking them from housing opportunities — a problem that the pandemic has only worsened.
The ACLU is calling for an extension and expansion of the federal eviction moratorium to make it fully effective for tenants across the country; funding for emergency rental assistance to cover the many months of rent payments that the most vulnerable, low-income tenants have been unable to make during the pandemic; and funding for right to counsel programs to address the reality that eviction court proceedings are skewed to favor landlords and evict people from their homes.
The moratorium, rental assistance and right to counsel are the three legs of the tenant protection stool, and all three are essential to keeping people housed during the pandemic and preventing massive waves of evictions afterward.
2. Fund Home and Community Based Services to support people with disabilities, seniors, and direct care workers
The pandemic has revealed more starkly than ever how dangerous life in an institution can be for people with disabilities and older adults. Although nursing homes and other congregate settings have less than 1 percent of the country’s population, they comprised almost 40 percent of COVID deaths. What is needed now more than ever is dedicated funding for Medicaid home and community-based services (HCBS) which would allow people with disabilities and seniors to live in their own homes and communities instead of in institutions. This is not just a moral imperative but also a matter of civil rights.
At the same time, Congress must act to support and sustain the direct care workforce, predominantly Black and Brown women, who at great risk to themselves, their families, and their communities, show up to care for and assist vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities in their own homes. The work they do allows people with disabilities and seniors to stay safe at home, but these critical workers still lack basic protective equipment, access to paid leave, and hazard pay. These deficiencies, along with low wages, is destabilizing for workers and their families and for the people with disabilities who rely on their services. Direct care workers have been at the frontlines of the pandemic but they have been largely left out of the national conversation. That must change.
Congress is poised, finally, to address the needs of workers, seniors, and people with disabilities by including HCBS funding in the next COVID relief package. The bill would provide dedicated funding for several critical efforts, including reducing the wait list for home and community-based services and providing hazard pay, paid leave, and PPE for home health care workers and direct support professionals.
3. Provide testing, treatment, and vaccines to immigrant workers
Nationwide, there are approximately 19.8 million “essential” immigrant workers, risking their lives under constant threat of exposure. There are 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients and 27,000 DACA recipients working as doctors, nurses, and paramedics. Yet, legislation consistently leaves tens of millions of people out of testing and treatment, including vaccines.
Many of these people are Black and Brown, including immigrants from green card holders and DACA recipients to those without immigration status. While providing funds to states for services is critical, it is not enough on its own. Testing and treatment, including vaccines, must be covered under emergency Medicaid. This is in line with the will of people: 68 percent of Americans believe that the federal government has an obligation to provide medical care to undocumented immigrants with COVID-19.
The Biden administration must clarify that states can and should cover COVID-related care, including testing, treatment, and vaccines, under emergency Medicaid so that tens of millions of people are not left out. Patchwork solutions will not address this pandemic. This pandemic affects all of us, and so must our national response. Our lives depend on it.
4. Fund emergency broadband
The ACLU supports Congress’s plan to include over $7 billion in funding for an Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund that will help elementary and secondary students afford internet access service and connected devices in the upcoming COVID relief package. It represents a meaningful step toward addressing the growing gap between students who have internet access at home and computers to connect during this crisis, and those who do not. This gap is more pronounced for Black, Latinx, and lower income households, and we are pleased that Congress plans to provide funds that will help these children attend school, connect with their teachers and classmates, and complete their schoolwork.
But Congress must do more to close the digital divide for all people. In the last relief package, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), which will provide a discount up to $50 ($75 on Tribal land) for low income families to afford broadband access and connected devices. Unfortunately, given the size of the need for this benefit, the funding set aside for the EBB could run out quickly. For that reason, in addition to funding the proposed Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, Congress also should allocate additional funds to the EBB sufficient to last until a bridge can be built to keep all families connected even after the program ends.
5. Provide child tax credits and cut child poverty in half
The Child Tax Credit (CTC) provisions in the latest COVID-relief bill create a significant, one-year enhancement to the credit. First, it makes the CTC fully refundable. This is crucial. Currently, if a parent does not earn enough, their children are ineligible for the credit — even though the purpose of the credit is to help our most vulnerable children. As a result, approximately three-quarters of white and Asian children are eligible for the full CTC, compared to only about half of Black and Hispanic children. Second, the enhancement increases the maximum credit from to $2,000 per child ages 0-16 to $3,600 for kids under 6 and $3,000 for kids 6-17. Third, the new CTC creates an advanced monthly payment option, so families can receive monthly checks starting July 1.
In total, these changes would nearly triple the poverty-fighting effects of the current CTC, lifting 4 million children out of poverty, and cut deep child poverty in half. The impacts on racial disparities are even more dramatic: These changes would cut poverty for Black children by 52 percent, Hispanic children by 45 percent, and Indigenous children by 61 percent. These expansions also improve children’s long term outcomes. The research is clear: Additional income has long term benefits for children’s educational attainment, employment, and health.
This is an investment in our nation’s future. Children should not just be the private responsibility of their parents, but that as a society we have a responsibility to ensure the next generation has the opportunity to fulfill their potential. These provisions are a down payment on ending child poverty for all children, and could lead to the largest reduction in child poverty rates in decades. More must be done to ensure all children, especially immigrant children and children in hard to reach populations, qualify and are made aware of their new benefits. And ultimately, we must make these hard won gains permanent in subsequent legislation this year.