As people across Massachusetts inch toward the ninth month of their coronavirus experience, it’s often difficult to remember what life was like before it all began. While we continue to face this unprecedented public health crisis, we’re also facing the devastating impact it’s had on our local and national economies. Groceries and basic essentials have run on short supply. Restaurants and small businesses have closed, and even the most robust businesses among us were forced to let workers go or significantly reduce their pay.
While everyone is suffering at some level, the suffering isn’t equal. This new normal of our economy, with its dramatic challenges, isn’t new to many working families in Massachusetts, especially those living below the poverty line. Families everywhere see the deck stacked against them, and our historically marginalized neighbors and friends feel this most acutely. We know that struggling to afford food, housing, and other necessities puts children and families’ health at risk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
US Senate Republicans stalled passing a second round of coronavirus pandemic relief before the election, due to partisan discord. As a result, it’s urgent that state governments act to deliver relief. In Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to pass a budget that would provide immediate assistance to families who have been pushed into despair as a result of the coronavirus.
The Legislature must get cash into people’s hands by passing An Act to Lift Kids Out of Deep Poverty, filed by Representative Marjorie Decker and Senator Sal DiDomenico. This bill would set a floor for cash benefits so that no child in Massachusetts would ever find themselves in deep poverty. The bill would increase maximum grant amounts by 10 percent per year until they reach 50 percent of the federal poverty level, and then increase them a small amount each year to keep up with inflation.
Other ways to level the economic playing field and deliver immediate relief to households would be to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit and extend that credit to taxpaying immigrant families. California and Colorado have already extended EITC eligibility to immigrant households.
While these legislative solutions are up against an increasingly challenging fiscal climate, it’s critical that partners in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors come together to sound the alarm on the need for relief, and the disastrous effects that would follow if we wait too long to act. According to a recent report by Feeding America, the hunger rate in Massachusetts has increased 59 percent since 2018, representing more than 1 million people who are now struggling to get enough to eat. If the state chooses to cut back on public funding during this time, it will inevitably cost more lives and create more suffering — particularly within communities of color — while also dragging out the economic recovery process even longer.
It shouldn’t take a pandemic to motivate elected officials to enact common-sense approaches to delivering economic relief and better health for families. But that’s where we are.
Without fail, the glorious New England autumn inevitably gives way to the cold, dark winter. While this is a reality of our regional climate, it’s also a metaphor for our communities and neighbors left behind if we don’t act to make change. This is our opportunity to ensure that this winter, poor families across Massachusetts aren’t left homeless, hungry, and in despair.
Kate Barrand is the president and CEO of Horizons for Homeless Children. Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba is the executive director of Children’s HealthWatch, based at Boston Medical Center. Lynn Margherio is the founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons.