7 policies that helped families stay afloat in the pandemic

From moratoriums to direct aid, these policies gave struggling folks a lifeline

The coronavirus pandemic has changed how people live, altering school, work and even how some get groceries — sometimes “with potentially dire implications for well-being,” Harvard researcher Tyler VanderWeele wrote recently in announcing a study by the Human Flourishing Project he directs.

In the pandemic, it has become clear that people need help — especially those who have lost jobs or wages or otherwise find themselves struggling to get by. And nowhere is the decline in well-being more visible than in the study’s measure of financial and material stability. It dropped significantly, “reflecting the profound effects the pandemic has had on the economy.”

The study was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

That news is not surprising to policymakers.

While families have tried to figure out how to cope with all the changes — hours cut, schools closed, jobs lost and more — government officials at all levels have enacted measures to help.

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“In terms of 2020, policy that did help, I think freezing evictions, freezing loan payments, increasing unemployment payments, the stimulus ... these policies all helped keep the roof over the heads of many families and food on the table.” said Arielle Kuperberg, associate professor of sociology and women’s gender and sexuality studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “As some of these policies are set to expire soon, or have already expired, and another stimulus does not seem forthcoming, I am very worried about the level of despair and hardship we will be seeing in the next couple of months.”

The Deseret News asked Kuperberg and other experts who work with and study families what policies have been most beneficial for those struggling in the pandemic. Here’s what they said:

Paid leave provided the ability to stay home if sick. “The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March 2020 provided employees of covered employers with up to two weeks of emergency paid sick leave and up to 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave, which can be used to care for children due to the closure of day cares and schools,” said Daniel L. Carlson, University of Utah associate professor of family and consumer studies. Large employers, the vast majority of which already offer paid leave of some sort, were exempted. The emergency paid leave for those working at smaller businesses is set to expire Dec. 31.

According to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a study in Health Affairs said paid leave succeeded in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 transmissions. The leave helped cut the spread by roughly 400 cases of COVID-19 each day in states that gave workers the new access to the paid time off. “While no one study is definitive, it offers some of the first evidence of the law’s efficacy in supporting public health,” the study says.

Help accessing COVID-19 testing and care. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act had health provisions, including the paid sick leave and the federal requirement that insurance companies and Medicaid cover testing for COVID-19 without out-of-pocket costs. That’s a boon to families who might not get tested because of fear they can’t afford it. Some who got tested told The New York Times they still got hit with additional fees or other costs, but many people have been tested without encountering that.

Help paying for food. Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, said many of the provisions enacted to combat COVID-19’s impact “helped tremendously.” She points to the emergency version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) as an example of aid that really mattered for those struggling, including people who lost jobs in the pandemic economic squeeze. It raised the benefit amount to the maximum, “which provided a huge influx of income to low-income families,” she said.

The families of children who had been receiving free or reduced-price school lunches also had access to Pandemic-EBT if their schools were closed by the pandemic. The electronic benefit transfer provided additional money to help with food costs temporarily.

“Food stamps have proven to be very effective, so it’s a shame that they have been threatened recently,” said Stephanie Coontz, education and research director for the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor at The Evergreen State College.

Stimulus money. Most adults received a one-time payment of $1,200 and some received $500 for their minor-age children. Rachidi said the economic stimulus payments “helped limit the rise in poverty, although those effects are wearing off.”

Congress also beefed up the unemployment benefit for a while and loosened some of the requirements to quality.

“Replacing wages when businesses and workplaces were shut certainly helped families to survive,” said Barbara J. Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the journal Gender & Society. “Surely, the one-time cash to all citizens helped but it was a drop in the bucket compared to replaced wages at some reasonable percentage. And, of course, the extra unemployment benefit — now set to expire — was a lifeline.”

Help for businesses to protect jobs. The Paycheck Protection Program provided loans to small businesses to help cover payroll and other costs. It’s expected that most of those those loans won’t have to be paid back, making them after-the-fact grants, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Congress also gave money to the Small Business Administration so it could provide loans, offer debt relief and give grants to businesses struggling temporarily in the pandemic.

Preschool teachers DiVina Warren and Eliza Graves work with children at Sunshine Academy Preschool & Daycare in Alpine on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Sunshine Academy is one of several child care centers that have been approved to reopen, with a number of strict new operating guidelines, to serve the children of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Day care for essential workers. This was both a “lifeline” and a lesson in COVID-19, Risman said. “From them we learned that small children are not actually major COVID spreaders.”

Congress included $3.5 billion in discretionary block grant funds in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, noting the states don’t have to match those funds. The Center for Law and Social Policy notes that the pandemic-sparked block grant money isn’t subject to all the normal rules. And one way it can be used without getting federal waivers is to provide child care help to any health workers, emergency responders, sanitation workers and others deemed “essential,” regardless of income.

Boosting funding to help essential workers access child care also took pressure off some daycare providers who faced the possibility of going broke as enrollment dropped when schools and workplaces closed.

Cities and states meeting local needs. The city of Miami has been using some of its COVID-19 relief money to hand out $250 gift cards to be used at Publix grocery stores. Residents who can show they’re struggling in the pandemic can apply for the giveaway, which is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

“My own state, North Carolina, did a small stimulus for parents specifically, which I found very helpful when my daughter broke the tablet she had been using for virtual schooling,” said Kuperberg.

Galena K. Rhoades, a research professor in the psychology department at University of Denver said Colorado’s recent paid leave law is a big help to families, too. The new law immediately replaced state rules requiring pandemic-related paid leave for those employed in some businesses.

“Through 2020, the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act requires all employers in the state, regardless of size, to provide emergency paid sick leave meeting the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provision to each employee not covered by the federal law,” according to the Mercer law and policy group,

“Beginning in 2021, employers — including Colorado public employers — will have to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked and additional leave for future public health emergencies. Colorado joins 14 other states and Washington, D.C., in enacting an accrued paid leave mandate for employers,” Mercer said.