Tens of thousands of Mainers continue to face hardship during the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis and will face an even bleaker winter if Congress does not pass a new round of COVID relief.
While the House of Representatives has passed several additional relief bills to extend help into next year for unemployed workers and other Mainers experiencing hardship, the US Senate has so far been at a standstill when it comes to COVID relief.
This week, however, a bipartisan group of Senators — including Maine Senators Susan Collins and Angus King — put forward a framework for a potential agreement. While this latest proposal is far from perfect, it is a far better starting point for negotiations than the ‘skinny’ plan backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many Senate Republicans.
Leaders in both chambers of Congress must come together immediately with the bipartisan framework as a starting point from which to craft a plan that — at the very least — extends emergency unemployment benefits, provides funding to cash-strapped states and communities, and provides relief to families experiencing hardship.
Mainers still falling behind, facing hunger and housing insecurity
Roughly 40,000 out-of-work Mainers are relying on unemployment benefits, and almost all of them will see benefits expire on December 26 if Congress does not act. These Mainers will be faced with a total loss of income at a time when jobs are both hard to find and potentially dangerous as a result of spiking coronavirus transmission and COVID cases.
Economic hardship goes beyond job losses, with many more Mainers facing cutbacks in hours or reduced work opportunities as a result of increased child care needs or health concerns. The latest data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey includes several alarming statistics for the two-week period ending November 23:
- One third of Maine adults — or roughly 356,000 Mainers — said they had trouble paying their usual household expenses, such as groceries, rent, or utility bills.
- More than one in four renters — roughly 60,000 Mainers — said they had “slight” or “no” confidence they would make next month’s rent.
- More than one in ten adults — roughly 111,000 Mainers — lived in a household where there “sometimes” or “often” was not enough to eat.
Bipartisan framework offers a path forward
Struggling Mainers need help now. Congress must extend unemployment benefits for as long as the crisis remains and authorize additional relief to ensure Mainers can stay in their homes, feed their families, and afford basic living expenses.
Congress also needs to avert a second crisis by sending relief money to state and local governments. Economic activity plummeted during the pandemic, reducing state revenue necessary to fund schools, health care, parks, public-sector jobs, and road and bridge maintenance. Maine’s latest revenue forecast shows lawmakers must address two massive revenue shortfalls in the upcoming session: First, they must close a $255 million shortfall for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1, 2021. Then, they must address a roughly $400 million shortfall in the next budget, which must be approved by the end of this fiscal year. Only the federal government has the borrowing power to deliver relief necessary to protect public services and jobs when they’re needed most.
The bipartisan framework backed by Sens Collins and King represents an important down payment on the most urgent priorities. It would extend unemployment benefits through March and provide an additional $300 per week on top of regular state unemployment payments. It would also allocate to $160 billion to state and local governments to preserve public services.
The plan, backed by Democratic leaders in both chambers, is too small to fully address the current crisis and should be expanded to better help families and power Maine’s economic recovery. But it is a far better starting point for the recovery than the so-called “skinny” plan backed by McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader has stuck to a previous proposal that falls even further short of what’s needed. The skinny bill includes just a one-month extension for unemployment benefits, ignoring the reality that the current crisis for workers will last much longer. It lacks any funding for states or communities, any protections for renters facing eviction, and no food assistance for hungry families.
Lawmakers should build on the bipartisan framework backed by Collins and King to craft a comprehensive relief bill suitable to the size of the crisis. Failing that, Congress should pass the bill as it is, and come back to the table to pass additional relief in the new year.