Naomi Ramos says the new COVID-19 relief bill just might save her.
The home health aide from Bensalem has three children — ages 5, 10, and 15 — and makes about $5,000 a year while going to school to realize her “life’s passion” of becoming a nurse. She counts on federal programs to get by as she works to improve her life.
Now provisions in the massive relief package that got final passage Wednesday — including new stimulus checks and what some are hailing as a landmark advancement in aid to children — could deliver about $15,000 to a parent like Ramos.
“What they’re saying the bill will give us with increasing food stamps and more child tax credits would get me through my hardships,” said Ramos, 36. “Going to school limits the hours I can work. Without help, it would set me back. But I’ve got to build a better future for my kids.”
The legislation, approved by Democrats without a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate, will deliver some of the most significant benefits to low- and middle-income parents.
It includes another round of checks to 85% of Americans and their children — $1,400 for adults and children, enough to more than double Ramos’ annual income — and a vast expansion of child tax credits. Those credits could steer up to $300 a month to parents of young children and $250 for older kids while making more people eligible, lifting millions of children out of poverty.
While Republicans call the overall $1.9 trillion package excessive and loaded with liberal giveaways, Democrats say it’s aimed at delivering on two of President Joe Biden’s central promises: helping the country through the pandemic, and raising the fortunes of working-class and poor Americans, especially those in minority communities who have borne the brunt of a year of illness, death, and economic hardship.
“This legislation is about giving the backbone of this nation — the essential workers, the working people who built this country, the people who keep this country going — a fighting chance,” Biden said in a statement moments after the House sent the bill to his desk. He plans to sign it Friday.
There’s aid for childless people with low incomes and renters, food assistance, help for health insurance, and an extension of $300-a-week federal unemployment benefits through September. State, county, and local governments and schools would receive hundreds of billions. There are billions to hire health workers and distribute vaccines.
Liberal advocates are celebrating the expanded child tax credits — which make more people eligible and grow the annual benefit from $2,000 a year to $3,600 for kids under 6, and $3,000 for other children — as a generational achievement that could reshape poverty. But that will only hold if they last beyond the one year provided in the legislation.
“It really can actually be one of the most transformative economic policies ever to come out of Washington, D.C., in decades,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), calling it “a major change in the trajectories of millions of children and a ripple effect that’s going to touch generations yet to come.”
Child poverty would fall by 4.1 million this year, nearly half, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. An estimated 1.2 million Black and 1.7 million Latino children would rise above the poverty line, according to the center.
In Pennsylvania, the group estimates that 90% of all children will benefit and 140,000 will be lifted out of poverty. In New Jersey, 89,000 children will move above the poverty line and 82% of all kids will benefit.
Combining the relief checks and tax credits, people in the bottom 60% of earners, those making less than $65,000, would see an 11% jump in income, according to the liberal Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Those with families would see the largest benefits.
The only people who would receive little benefit are those in the top 5%.
Republicans in Washington decry the bill as a partisan grab bag dumping excessive amounts of spending into an economy that’s already rebounding — and to millions of people who haven’t lost income.
“This is not a COVID bill, this is not a rescue plan, this is the last train leaving the station that the Democrats can plausibly pretend is about COVID or the economic recovery, and so they’re loading it up with a longstanding liberal wish list,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), pointing to billions unrelated to the pandemic.
Toomey said the country is in a “very different place” than when earlier relief bills were approved with no end to the pandemic in sight: $4 trillion has already been spent, people are getting vaccines, and unemployment is falling. The new measure, like the previous relief bills, isn’t matched with tax increases or spending cuts and will add to the national debt.
Democrats, believing they were too cautious when President Barack Obama inherited an economic calamity, are betting this bill will deliver the kind of tangible, immediate help that will overcome concerns about the cost or the absence of bipartisan support in Congress.
They argue that the risk of doing too little and dooming the country to a slow rebound outweighs the risk of doing too much. The impact on the country’s recovery could be what voters judge Biden and Democrats on in next year’s elections.
The child aid, new payments, and extension of unemployment benefits could all help Shakia Moore, 38, a security guard in University City and a new mother. After her son was born almost a year ago, she went back to her 3-to-11 p.m. shift. But she had to leave the job when a caretaker got COVID-19 and help for late hours was hard to find.
She plans to put her stimulus check toward baby items and helping her mother pay the rent in the Olney house they share.
“I’m grateful, but it’s been really scary. It’s been really tough,” Moore said. “In the beginning I just wanted to stay in my room and keep my son safe. Now I’m feeling just happy we have a brand-new president and he’s helping us — and this pandemic is getting under control.”
The bill would allow more people to claim the child tax credit at the full amount. Currently, low-income earners often don’t pay enough taxes to get the full benefit. And the payments would come periodically, providing a steady flow of government support. The larger credit begins phasing out for couples earning $150,000 or more.
For low-income workers without kids, the Earned Income Tax Credit would be nearly tripled, to $1,500, aiding 17 million adults a year.
Policy and health experts said lifting children out of poverty can have long-lasting benefits.
“The stress of that constant grind will be diminished, the child will be able to learn better, the family relaxes, and the child enjoys a better trajectory of health and success,” said Dan Taylor, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia.
Even those who aren’t technically in poverty can still struggle.
“The folks who were absolutely hardest hit in the Bucks County area fall into that category,” said Marissa Christie, president and CEO of United Way of Bucks County. “Tax credits are critical for them. These folks are barely getting by on survival budgets.”
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that at every economic level, families with children under 17 would save at least $2,000, on average. The only exception is the wealthiest 1%.
But families could face a shock if Democrats can’t make the changes permanent. Booker and others said they’re determined to do so, but that’s no sure thing in a narrowly divided Congress.
Some progressives call the bill a missed opportunity — and a broken promise — because it doesn’t include a $15 federal minimum wage. That provision passed the House but was blocked in the Senate.
“These are helpful things, but they may not be the really serious kind of interventions that we actually need right now given the kind of crisis that we’re in,” said Nijmie Dzurinko, cochair of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign.
Eva, who cleans Philadelphia restaurants for $9 an hour and asked that only her first name be used, said she lost the vast majority of her work when the pandemic shuttered dining. As an undocumented immigrant, she hasn’t received stimulus checks or other aid, so she’s relied on food banks for her and her 8-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen.
“We’ve had days when it’s been very, very cold but we won’t turn on the heat,” Eva, 51, said through a translator.
“I’m not the only person that could have benefited from this,” she said of the $15 wage. “There are so many people that are making what I’m making as a salary or even less, and that’s why I’m disillusioned.”
Gabe Morgan, head of the SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents security guards, social workers, and building cleaners in Pennsylvania, said that while the bill will help his members, leaving out the minimum-wage hike is a “slap in the face” to those who have worked in risky environments without hazard pay.
For many, like Upper Darby’s Dave DiRentis, the aid will mostly make the economic hole dug by the pandemic a little less deep.
DiRentis, 53, lost almost all his work as an event photographer once the virus struck. His wife, a nurse, picked up an extra shift at an assisted living facility to keep them afloat. DiRentis applied for unemployment, his first time ever aside from a single week 20 years ago.
It took months to get any aid, $173 a week, and he had to fight for the added $300 federal benefit. In the meantime, credit card debt stacked up, his two rescue greyhounds got sick, leaving big veterinarian bills, and his home needs repairs after sewage leaked into the basement. He’s trying to keep up with discounted Catholic school tuition for his 15-year-old daughter, adopted from China in 2009.
“I’ve been wearing the same jeans for I don’t know how long. I’m driving an 11-year-old car. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes,” DiRentis said. “She’s an A-plus student all the way. I just feel like, Look, I gotta do this because we brought her here. I’ve gotta make good on that and give her everything she deserves.”
The new legislation won’t fix everything.
“Even if we get that money, the most it’s going to do is kind of keep the daily things moving forward,” he said. “It’s going to take a long time for us and for the country to recover. In the meantime, all I can do is kind of hold my breath.”