Seeking to reduce economic inequities, President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed substantial financial payments to children, reopened the federal health care marketplace and delayed the 2020 census, which is suspected of undercounting urban residents and minorities.
Biden seeks to provide $3,600 a year for children under age 6 and $3,000 for children under 18. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has proposed a similar plan with slightly larger payments, raising the possibility of bipartisan action.
Child poverty surged in the latter months of 2020 as the coronavirus spread and millions of Americans lost their jobs, according to a report by economists Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame.
Many Americans also lost workplace health insurance, prompting a spike in Medicaid enrollment.
Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health coverage for low-income families and the disabled, had declined for two consecutive years, but increased by 6.l million or 8.6 percent from February to September 2020, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Reversing a controversial policy of President Donald Trump’s administration, Biden officials have notified states they will revoke work requirements for Medicaid. Six states have approved such policies, but only Indiana and Utah have implemented them and the Utah requirement is on hold because of the pandemic.
Ten million Americans receive health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. Biden has reopened the sign-up period for three months for the 36 states that offer health insurance on HealthCare.gov, the federal website for the ACA.
Nine states with their own health care exchanges followed suit, meaning that most Americans will soon be able to sign up for ACA coverage until May 15.
Biden also withdrew federal support for a longshot lawsuit by a red-state coalition led by Texas that is challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare. The case is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which twice previously upheld the constitutionality of the ACA.
During Nov. 10 oral arguments on the latest lawsuit, a majority of justices expressed support for most of the law.
The Biden administration is also revisiting the 2020 census. The federal government distributes $1.5 billion annually in myriad programs to states and local governments based on census data.
The part of the census that determines the population basis for apportioning congressional seats among the states has been pushed back to April 30.
Another part of the census, providing population at the smallest levels of geography, is not expected until Sept. 30. It is this data that is used for congressional and legislative redistricting, and for funding distribution formulas for the states and local governments.
Total population for the states was supposed to be completed on Dec. 31, 2020, but the census experienced unprecedented delays because of the pandemic and the Trump administration’s effort to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census tally.
Hours after he was sworn in as president, Biden signed an executive order requiring that all U.S. residents, whether legal or not, be counted in state population numbers. This follows the directive of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says the census must include the “whole number of persons in each state.”
The attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census had damaging fallout, said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF. Such immigrants became fearful of deportation and avoided census takers and other government officials, he said.
Undercounts of minorities, poor people, infants and the homeless are nothing new, but the 2020 census undercount is expected to be larger than usual, said Terry Ao Minnis, senior director of census and voting programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
In addition to the complications caused by the pandemic, census gathering was affected by massive wildfires in the West and the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record.
“You can argue about what role politics plays in the census, but politics is not to blame for the hurricanes, the fires or the pandemic,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Going forward, it’s uncertain how much the Census Bureau will be able to do in 2021 to repair last year’s damage.
“We are optimistic that things at the Census Bureau will be better,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “The question is whether the damage caused by the Trump administration can be rectified.”
Chances for reform may have improved with the departure of Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, who resigned in the wake of allegations that he had prioritized delivering data on unauthorized immigrants to Trump at the expense of the census itself.
The interim chief of the bureau is deputy director Ron Jarmin, who in a Feb. 2 blog acknowledged that the pandemic posed a “daunting challenge,” said the bureau was trying to correct what he called “processing anomalies.”
Among other things, Jarmin said the bureau would recalculate populations that might have been missed at college dormitories, prisons and nursing homes.
Students were supposed to be counted at the college or university they attended, but many were at home because of the pandemic.
Whatever happens to the census, the Biden administration faces formidable barriers in its promise to reduce U.S. economic inequality, which has steadily increased during the last four decades.
In the late 1970s, the top 10 percent of Americans received a third of total income; they now receive about half. During the same period, the income share of the richest 1 percent of Americans doubled to 20 percent from 10 percent.
While economic inequality was increasing, the U.S. poverty rate was declining.
Inequality and poverty march to different drummers. Inequality mirrors the increasing concentration of capital in fewer hands, while poverty reflects job availability and the sturdiness of the social safety net.
Poverty has been trending downward since the “War on Poverty” under President Lyndon Johnson more than a half century ago and fell notably in 2014 because of changes in tax credits and the food-stamp (SNAP) program.
By 2019 the poverty rate had declined to 10.5 percent, marking a fifth straight annual drop, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the pandemic changed this equation. Economists Meyer and Sullivan found that the poverty rate overall increased by 2.4 percentage points during the second half of 2020.
Three in 20 Americans under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line at the end of 2020, according to a Columbia University study that closely tracks the findings of Meyer and Sullivan. The share rises to more than one in five for black and Latino children.
Congress has passed several tax credits to help the poor in recent decades, most recently in 2017, but many of them do not reach children whose parents are out of work, said Sophie Collyer, the research director at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.
By giving money to children regardless of whether their parents are employed, both the Biden and Romney proposals would avoid this hurdle and potentially make a dent in the poverty rate.
Each plan would last a year, and Romney would give an extra $600 to each child under age 6.
Poor children have struggled on many fronts during the pandemic. Most of them have had their education disrupted and in extreme cases suffered from hunger and homelessness.
In explaining his plan, Romney said poor children were severely stressed and that “bold programs” were needed to help them.
“Stopping this economic crisis for so many Americans will prevent its effects from leading to the kind of chronic, toxic stress that can harm well-being over the entire life course,” he said.
— Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.