On March 13, 2020, almost one year ago today, I wrote a column for the Michigan Advance outlining some public policy solutions to reduce COVID-19’s impact on workers and families with lower incomes.
A year later, I thought I’d take a look at how well policymakers have responded to the pandemic-related needs of Michigan families.
Access to health care
Luckily, the worry we had last March about the impending Healthy Michigan Plan work requirements quickly dissipated following a federal court decision vacating their approval. And good thing, too, because the Healthy Michigan Plan has proven vital during the coronavirus pandemic. Enrollment in the program has increased by more than 170,000 in the past year.
As soon as the COVID-19 crisis hit, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved quickly to increase access to no-cost, medically necessary COVID-19 testing and treatment services. Additionally, the state temporarily suspended Medicaid renewals in order to prevent coverage loss during the public emergency.
And just this week, at the federal level, the American Rescue Plan passed and was signed by President Joe Biden, building on previously enacted federal aid. The plan includes significant health investments, such as funding to make health coverage more affordable through enhanced and expanded premium tax credits for people insured through the individual marketplace.
Notably, this plan also gives states the option to extend Medicaid coverage to women with low to modest incomes for a full year after childbirth — a change that will make the process of extending coverage in this way much less cumbersome for interested states like Michigan.
Access to paid sick leave
In March 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which required that all public employers, and all private employers with fewer than 500 employees, provide 10 days of paid sick leave. The bill also included provisions to provide paid leave for workers experiencing COVID symptoms or who have to take off work because their child’s school or place of care is closed.
The Michigan League for Public Policy continues to advocate for Michigan to revise the state paid sick leave law to cover workers at businesses with fewer than 50 employees, extend paid sick leave coverage to all workers, and increase the maximum number of hours of sick time per year from 40 hours to 72.
Access to assistance programs
As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, the League was quick to raise awareness of the economic crisis that was going to come with it — and was going to hit workers and families with lower incomes the hardest. Luckily, the importance of the safety net during the initial crisis and beyond has resonated fairly well with policymakers from both sides of the aisle.
The federal government along with Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature have made significant investments in food assistance access. Just this week, Gov. Whitmer signed COVID-19 supplemental funding to provide $600 million to boost food assistance for state residents. And also this week, the Rescue Plan extended a temporary increase in SNAP benefits to help expand food access for enrolled families.
Preventing evictions, keeping kids from going hungry
The supplemental funding signed this week by Whitmer also includes $283 million in federal emergency rental assistance to help ensure people can stay in their homes. And previous supplemental funding passed by the Michigan Legislature and signed by the governor has also made rental and mortgage assistance a priority. The Rescue Plan further increased housing assistance to help families keep their homes and stave off potential eviction and foreclosure.
Funding for school meal programs has also continued to be a priority for the state and federal government. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Michigan Department of Education have taken advantage of numerous federal waivers available to maximize the reach of key food programs for kids and families, including SNAP, WIC and other child nutrition programs.
The challenges ahead
The list of needs I raised last year was a long one, and fortunately some good progress has been made. But other areas must be addressed, and soon.
The League continues to push for the permanent restoration of 26 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits and other reforms to better support residents who are out of work. There has been some positive bipartisan support in the areas of childcare, school funding and adult education — needs that are even more relevant in light of COVID — and we support the governor’s efforts to build on these investments in the 2022 state budget.
With their action this week on the American Rescue Plan, federal policymakers rose to meet the urgency of this moment, investing nearly $2 trillion to help residents in Michigan and around the country who are still struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this much-needed relief is still only temporary.
Worse yet, the billions of dollars soon to be heading Michigan’s way from the Rescue Plan stand to run into the current political buzzsaw that is supplemental funding negotiations, as the Michigan Legislature continues to use its control over federal COVID dollars to push a political power struggle with the governor.
This money stands to significantly change the story we will all be telling about COVID-19 at this time next year. In order to make recovery a reality for all families, we have to help the residents who are being hit the hardest right now. And the League will continue to advocate for the policies — and political compromises — that will do just that.