Column: COVID-19 stimulus shows needs of Michiganders, nation can transcend party politics

U.S. Capitol | Susan J. Demas

A lot has changed in the last two weeks. I recently wrote about the COVID-19 crisis that had just landed in Michigan, and now we have the fourth-highest number of cases in the nation. 

More than 100 Michiganders and counting have sadly lost their lives. Workers have been laid off. Many businesses have temporarily closed. Most of us have been largely confined to our homes.

Needless to say, we could all use some good news. And this message of goodwill, compassion and compromise is coming courtesy of the U.S. Capitol. After two years of deep partisan divides and equally divisive policies in Washington, the COVID-19 crisis brought elected officials together this week to work on an expansive and urgent federal stimulus bill to help workers, business owners and families in Michigan and around the country.

The bipartisan federal stimulus law is a huge win in the fight against the COVID-19 public health crisis and the related economic strain it’s putting on workers, businesses and communities in Michigan and across the country. Here are some of the key areas of agreement.

Emergency unemployment insurance

As part of the stimulus deal, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) negotiated provisions for “unemployment insurance on steroids” to significantly expand unemployment eligibility and monetary benefits. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been doing her part to help Michigan workers and businesses get through this, and this federal action will supplement state efforts and strengthen Unemployment Insurance even further. In addition to making more people eligible for Unemployment Insurance, the federal changes also add an extra $600 per week in benefits for all recipients. 

Strengthening Michigan’s outdated unemployment insurance system is vital to help address the economic struggles that are coming with it — and are sure to linger after the virus is under control.

130K Michiganders filed for unemployment last week

Help for housing, homelessness

The federal stimulus bill provided $12 billion dollars to address housing needs during the COVID crisis and protect people experiencing homelessness from a potential outbreak of the virus. 

This funding will help providers of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing to keep up with their increased costs and to adjust rental assistance for households facing increased financial stress. 

Other key goals for housing advocates like a temporary moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for homeowners and renters in homes with federally-backed mortgages were also included in the legislation. 

This is a significant investment and will go a long way toward helping more people stay in their home — and toward helping prevent the spread of the virus among people who are experiencing homelessness.

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Funding for state support

The agreement also includes a new fund that state and local governments can draw down right away to meet virus-related costs they may incur in 2020 and billions of dollars directed to states for childcare, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, mass transit systems and more. 

This funding is extremely important, as Michigan has to maintain a balanced budget at the state level and COVID-19 is going to put a major squeeze on state dollars this year and down the road. 

This federal funding will be a major shot in the arm for Michigan’s needs during this COVID crisis, but it will also come with more questions, more decisions — and more advocacy needs for organizations like the Michigan League for Public Policy and the people we represent. 

For the most part, it will be up to Michigan lawmakers to decide how to disburse the stimulus funding for our state. Congress showed that they could rise above partisanship and political differences to properly address this crisis, and we urge Michigan legislators to do the same.

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Energy assistance

The stimulus bill also included $900 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). 

This funding will be crucial to helping Michigan residents keep their utilities on during a public health crisis. This is especially important since coronavirus causes respiratory stress and our hospitals probably won’t have the capacity to admit everyone who contracts it. 

Maintaining a healthy temperature and high air quality in the home, especially for people with underlying respiratory conditions like asthma, will be critical for minimizing vulnerability.

Food and nutrition

The bill also provides a combined $24.6 billion in additional funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and child nutrition programs, as well as $450 million for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). 

TEFAP provides the country’s charitable feeding network with a significant portion of the food it distributes through food banks and pantries, which are becoming even more critical as people lose their jobs and children lose access to meals due to school and child care closures.

Column: Michigan is failing children with tattered safety net 

‘Recovery rebates’

Finally, the “recovery rebates” included in the stimulus bill will certainly provide some welcome support to Michigan residents and their families while helping the economy as well during these tough times. 

From the MLPP’s standpoint, we know these checks will be particularly beneficial to workers with lower incomes and those raising kids. But we are also glad that bipartisan negotiations reined things in a bit, resulting in a sliding scale and an income cap for eligibility for these rebates.

Making priorities last beyond crisis

In times of crisis, it’s good to see members of Congress work together to hammer out a solid agreement that tackles a lot of needs. 

The bipartisan agreement to provide funding for these policy areas and other important programs in the stimulus bill shows that their value is recognized — and we just need to make sure that recognition continues in the future, not just in times of crisis. 

More aid to Michigan and other states will surely be needed in the months ahead, and we hope Congress will continue to support states and families affected by this crisis.