Americans are Broke and Hungry, as Politicians Have Sat on Their Hands

Covid-19 not only killed over 300,000 Americans, it also bankrupted millions. When it first attacked, congress and the white house rushed billions to rich corporations, while the Fed turned on the money spigot to keep the stock market afloat. But this largesse also reached ordinary people. It saved millions from destitution. That one effort, however, was about all the GOP could stand. The thought of more money for regular people was too much for it. Dems readied a $3 trillion relief bill last spring, but it sat on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk – and sat, and sat, and sat. The same GOP that enthusiastically hastened Trump’s massive tax cut for billionaires and rich corporations balked at extending $600 dollars a week for the unemployed. That, we were told last summer, would encourage laziness. So the GOP-led senate did nothing, the Dems basically did nothing, and as summer rolled into fall, Americans because more desperate.

The official and very low-ball number of unemployed people in the U.S. is 12.6 million. I say low-ball, because the way those numbers are reported is fishy – they don’t count as unemployed, for instance, people who abandon the job search after a certain number of weeks. There are millions of those – people who have given up. But they don’t count. Also, official statistics sugarcoat the number of underemployed by counting them as “employed,” even though they may be desperate for full-time work. So the numbers slant toward falsehood. They are manipulated to make a calamity look rosier.

But here are some numbers that aren’t fake: Twelve million people will lose jobless benefits on December 26. That’s when support expires for the long-term unemployed through Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and through Extended Benefits. In the weekly jobless data world, 700,000 newly out of work is considered an improvement. That’s because during one December week, over 947,000 people lost their jobs. Also true is that millions of tenants face eviction at the end of December, when the federal moratorium lapses. Many will end up living in their cars or on the street. Meanwhile shoplifting is on the rise, because Americans are hungry. Lines of cars for food-banks stretch for miles.

What have the geniuses in Washington done? As little as possible. Two weeks ago, a bipartisan effort to release $908 billion for relief had foundered. It did so one week after 853,000 people filed unemployment claims. This latest package apparently bugged McConnell and the GOP by not including a liability life-raft for businesses facing an alleged tsunami of covid suits. This, despite the absence of any such tidal wave of covid litigation. But the GOP thinks you can never be too careful. Giant meatpacking firms force their employees to remain on the covid-infested factory floor – these companies are the ones who need protection? Apparently that’s what one political party thinks. Another negotiating problem is that the GOP wants to starve the cities and states, many – Democratic AND Republican – nearly insolvent due to plunging tax revenues during the pandemic. How cities and states will finance vaccination, when the senate refuses them money for basic necessities is an open question.

Now there are reports the congressional logjam may have broken. First the bill was split in two. One bill allocated $748 billion for the unemployed and small business, according to the Washington Post. The other set aside $160 billion for cities and states and included the liability shield. Centrist bi-partisans crafted this bill. Assuming the one for $160 billion would never pass, and top Biden aides indeed signaled that they could live without it, that left $748 billion for desperate Americans – surprisingly close to the GOP’s original offer last spring and a far cry from the $3 trillion the Dems first demanded. Then suddenly congress neared a new deal, basically adding to the one for $748 billion, bringing the price tag up around $900 billion.

Congressman Ro Khanna tweeted on Dec. 15, “I was ridiculed when I said [to Dem leadership months ago] take $1.8 trillion. That had $1200 for each adult, $1000 per child, $400 UI, $300 billion state and local. Now we are okay with no stimulus checks? Americans are livid with Congress. It’s not hard. Listen to what people need.” Congress got the message. As of Dec. 16, negotiations for stimulus checks began.

But overall, one does wonder, if the Dems were going to cave like this, what were they freaking waiting for? They could have made a deal back in May, and then at least the unemployed would have received a $300 weekly supplement instead of the zero they got when the $600 one ran out. The Dems were partly busy playing electoral politics, while the GOP, unable to stuff its corporate donors’ pockets with cash, decided on no more than scraps for ordinary people. But other things were going on, too.

Prior to this week’s deal, House Leader Nancy Pelosi said “we have to have a bill,” the Post reported. But Trump had already sandbagged Pelosi several times over this covid relief bill, while McConnell has done one thing consistently – shrunk dollars for needy Americans. Maybe the bipartisan group that cobbled together the two-part $908 billion deal didn’t have enough votes to go forward. Also why did the white house recently taunt it and sabotage its efforts by proposing a skimpy one-time $600 payment instead of a regular $300 weekly supplement? Which, back in the summer, the white house demanded.

The political games are too intricate to keep track of, but they reveal a lot: much of the skinflint GOP is quite averse to helping struggling Americans. That explains its intransigence. And it fits with past practice. It is the party of the poorhouse and McConnell is its Scrooge. And the Dems don’t look so wonderful either. They’ve clearly played their own games with covid relief and now might have blown it. They may not be able to get anything other than crumbs for the millions of Americans who are broke. To say nothing of the millions scraping by since summer, when the weekly supplement stopped. We’ll see what happens with this latest $900 billion bi-partisan proposal.

But both parties sure can unite when it comes to passing a veto-proof defense bill, to make it impossible for a president to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. They came together over that, over the National Defense Authorization Act, in no time. A real kumbaya moment. That’s because Trump plans to reduce the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and, heavens! The war could end! Democrats and Republicans rushed to the assistance of the Pentagon on this.

As Senator Rand Paul observed in a recent article, apparently it’s fine with congress to cede all its war-making power to the unitary executive, but should that unitary executive show signs of ending a war, well, then congress passes a bill to stop it. How idiotic is that? This is a reasonable question. But if your guiding principle is more war and more money for war uber alles, it’s not idiotic at all. Congress can muster a veto-proof bill to prolong a 20-year war, but it’s taken half a year and counting to find the will to keep citizens fed and housed during a deadly pandemic.

Meanwhile Biden hedges about cancelling student debt. This is particularly galling, since he ran for president on a promise to cancel much of it – indeed presidents have the unique power to cancel student debt without congressional approval. Biden should cancel ALL of that debt. That educational debt, $1.7 trillion, crushes millions of people. It makes children go hungry. It forces families to live in homeless shelters or on the street.

This will be one of the first tests of whether or not Biden was serious about stepping into FDR’s shoes – because if FDR was president today, he would abolish student debt. He would also entice and pressure the 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to do so, thus making Medicaid a de facto public option. These are hard times for America’s poor, middle-class and working people, catastrophic times. The senate cannot and will not rise to the moment. Let’s hope the new president can.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.