The COVID-19 recession has millions of people struggling to feed their families, pay rent, and make ends meet. Texas cases of the virus continue to grow with no signs of slowing. While there are a number of actions Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature can take both now and long-term, it’s clear that Congress will also need to step up and provide more aid to help every Texan get through this recession.
Top Ways Congress Can Fight COVID-19 and Help Workers
- Increase the federal share of funding for Medicaid
- Extend Benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program
- Increase food assistance through SNAP and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program
- Include immigrants, many of whom are essential workers, in relief packages
An Important Program with a Funny Name
One of the most important steps Congress has taken so far is a temporary change to the way the federal government shares the costs of Medicaid with states through something called the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP. The 6.2 percentage point increase to states’ FMAP included as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) means that states like Texas can meet the increased need for health coverage through Medicaid while freeing up healthcare funding for other priorities that are at risk of being cut. But governors, mayors, doctors and hospital associations across the country agree: The FMAP increase in FFCRA is too small and will end too soon. Congress needs to enact a larger FMAP increase in the next coronavirus relief bill and keep that increase in place until the job market recovers.
Since the FFCRA became law two months ago, the number of Americans who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically skyrocketed to more than 41 million people – with millions more expected this month. Texas’ unemployment rate for April was 12.8%, the worst on record, and up from 3.5% in January and February. Since mid-March, more than 2.2 million Texans have filed unemployment claims, and this number is still growing.
For many Texans, losing a job or having your hours cut also means losing job-based health insurance. Before COVID-19, 13 million Texans had job-based health insurance – roughly half of Texans under age 65 (53%). As job losses mount, so has the number of uninsured Texans. , and now 3 in 10 Texas adults are uninsured. Even before COVID-19, Texas had both the largest uninsured population (5 million Texans) and the highest uninsured rate (18%). This staggering surge in job losses is straining state budgets like never before, due to significant losses in tax revenue, dramatic increases in new unemployment claims and growth in Medicaid enrollment by children whose parents have lost their jobs. People of color are taking the biggest hits both medically and economically.
COVID-19 is pushing states to the brink. Governor Abbott and Texas lawmakers have required state agencies to propose across-the-board cuts in state services for the current budget period, and we expect directions for deeper cuts for the upcoming budget within days. The FMAP increase provided in the FFCRA was a positive first step, but it is increasingly clear that it will not be sufficient to avoid significant budget cuts during a time when Medicaid is vitally important to COVID-19 response.
Medicaid Expansion options should be on the table now. But in the meantime, while we are forced to wait for state leadership to move forward on Medicaid Expansion, Congress needs to further enhance federal matching financing for the Medicaid program for all states. States like Texas need additional support, because we are being hardest hit by the economic shockwaves. The HEROES Act in Congress would more than double the FMAP increase provided in FFCRA and maintain that increase at least through June 30, 2021. The bipartisan National Governors Association has called for an FMAP increase tied to state unemployment rates.
Without more funding from Congress, states like Texas may be forced to cut crucial education programs, health care and social services at the worst possible time. Increasing FMAP is critical, along with other forms of federal aid to states, cities and towns, such as funds for schools and direct grants.
Pandemic Unemployment Compensation
As the pandemic continues to worsen, so does the recession’s impact on workers — and this recession will be with us for a while. Congress should immediately extend the additional $600 per week of benefits offered through the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program. Congress should also enact real structural reforms to Unemployment Insurance to ensure it is an effective counter-cyclical economic support. These changes should include requiring states to replace a higher share of people’s lost income and closing gaps in worker’s coverage, which were temporarily addressed through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The Texas AFL-CIO and Every Texan have created a Ten Point federal and state plan to address the plight of workers.
Millions of Texans sought unemployment benefits as their source of income disappeared; however, too many were not approved for benefits or never made it through the burdensome process, as the system was designed to make benefits hard to access. Texans deserve a program that is meant to serve them when their jobs disappear, even if they earn income through part-time work, as an independent contractor or through a mix of sources.
Food Assistance Programs
To fight hunger in Texas, Congress needs to temporarily increase food assistance benefits (SNAP) by 15% for all households so they can afford to buy groceries and feed their families in this recession. Relatedly, Congress should extend the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program and include preschoolers to replace the value of meals kids will miss if summer feeding programs, schools and daycares remain closed due to the pandemic. Food insecurity rates in Texas, which were already some of the highest in the country, have skyrocketed due to COVID-19. While Congress took important steps to increase food assistance in the previous relief packages, 20 percent of Texas households with children report they are “not at all confident” in being able to afford food in the next four weeks. SNAP is America’s most effective anti-hunger program and one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, as people spend their benefits quickly and in their local communities.
Include Immigrants in Relief Packages
Lastly, Congress needs to include families of mixed immigration status that filed tax returns using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) in the stimulus package. Immigrants are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. People of color are the majority of essential workers (61.2% are Black, Hispanic, or Asian) in comparison to the overall workforce. About 20% of essential workers in Texas are immigrants, and these workers are especially critical to keeping the trucking and warehouse sectors operating in Texas, as well as the Postal Service. About 99% of the workers at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas, which was reportedly hit with a cluster of Coronavirus cases, are immigrants.
Pandemic relief polices that exclude mixed-status families greatly undermine Texas’ and the nation’s ability to overcome this unprecedented crisis. The federal response to the COVID-19 crisis left many low- and moderate-income immigrants—especially in mixed-status families—out of the public health and stimulus policies. For example, the IRS Stimulus payments were denied to mixed-status families in which one family member files their taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number, rather than a Social Security Number. This exclusion threatens the well-being of immigrants and their entire families, putting at risk millions of U.S. citizen children and our communities.
The next coronavirus relief bill should retroactively authorize stimulus payments to immigrant households where an adult does not have a Social Security Number. Congress can also go further in supporting immigrant families in the next package by including an emergency assistance fund for states to provide basic income assistance and emergency aid to families and individuals who face severe hardship due to today’s health and economic crises, regardless of their immigration status.
We as a nation, and Texans working together, can defeat COVID-19 and overcome this crisis. These reforms would support our state and help health care providers, educators and tens of millions of Texans and Americans who depend on public services like Medicaid every day.