March 26, 2021
by Tamara Boussac, PhD in American History and member of the Mondes Américains (UMR 8168), Teaching Assistant at the Université Paris I-Panthéon Sorbonne.
With the Covid crisis, there are renewed discussions about poverty and social inequalities in the United States. Joe Biden's 1.9 trillion stimulus package, put in place because of the crisis, embodies a government intervention that totally goes against the "less government" culture so touted by both the Republicans and the Democrats in the past several decades. As a matter of fact, the package provides for direct financial assistance from the federal government to Americans, with checks of 1 400 dollars, based on resources, as well as a measure for children. Indeed, a tax credit has been extended to families with dependent children, for a total average of 300 dollars per child and per month, including for the unemployed.
These measures break with the past 25 year doxa with respect to welfare programs in the United States, based on restricting benefits by capping the amounts and duration, as well as conditioning this aid with mandatory working hours. This is not new when looking at past history. For several decades, welfare programs created during the 1930s New Deal, especially Aid to Families with Dependent Children, have given means of livelihood to single mothers.
But since the end of the 1960s, poor women, often African American, with dependent children, have had to deal with harsher reforms meant to get them back to the workplace, forcing them for want of anything better to get married in order to survive economically. This restrictive and punitive approach, whose objective was to control the poor rather than help them, was terminated by a reform adopted in 1996 by Democratic president Bill Clinton. The reform established a new program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, providing meager aid in exchange for hours worked and for a maximum of 5 years.
In the United States, welfare programs are not just based on resources, they have also traditionally been tied to the beneficiary's individual "merit" and their place in a productive society. This is what is meant when measures require mandatory work: the poor must merit their benefits by showing that they are trying and that they are ready to do anything in order to get into the job market.
Even in 2021 with the devastating social effects of Covid-19, some Republicans still reject what they describe as benefits unduly allocated to undeserving populations. Criticizing a proposition from his colleague Mitt Romney who was planning to reform the tax credit in order to give more relief to the unemployed, the Florida senator Marco Rubio reiterated that these measures should only be given to those who worked. It was out of the question for him to change a "tax relief for working parents" into "welfare assistance", a wording that really shows the stigmatization of welfare programs and those who benefit from them.
By using a direct money transfer, without quid pro quo, the Biden plan goes back to the old welfare programs, that make the fight against poverty a national issue. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionally impacted the poorest populations, especially African American. In New York, the city's data show that the poorest boroughs, Brooklyn and the Bronx, have been particularly hit. At the start of 2021, Bright Beach and Coney Island in the south of Brooklyn were the neighborhoods with the most hospitalizations (306.9 hospitalizations per 100 000 residents) and those of Parkchester and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx (219.1). The data on mortality shows a similar distribution: it is sometimes twice as high in the poor neighborhoods than in the rest of the city. For these populations, the crisis is as much a public health crisis as it is a social and economic one since they are significantly impacted by the loss of a job and income because of a tightening economy, and are also more at risk of dropping out of school.
The Biden plan answers to these economic and political concerns since the war on poverty was at the heart of the president's campaign. As part of the president's promises to strengthen the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), he did encourage private companies to reintegrate those who had lost their insurance because of the crisis.
The reform also answers to the demands of a social movement that has been active for several years. Associations defending the poor have organized themselves to demand better social protection, especially during Covid-19's public health, economic and social crisis. That is the case for the Poor People's Campaign, whose name references back to the movement launched by Martin Luther King at the end of the 1960s, and that is present in about forty states. Very active in New York State, it in fact sent a petition to governor Andrew Cuomo and to Congress officials, urging them to put an ambitious welfare program in place: 100% coverage for sick leave, free access to tests and healthcare relating to Covid-19, a guaranteed annual income for all workers, including the most vulnerable, during the pandemic, repeal of all medical and student debt, and also cancelling the work requirement to obtain federal welfare aid such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The New York branch is fighting for the adoption of a New York Health Act by the state's parliament, meant to guarantee access to healthcare for all New Yorkers, no matter their income, their age or the color of their skin. The draft bill will be studied in 2021. Because, as the associations have well understood, the fight against poverty is mainly played out at the state level and there are huge disparities from one state to another. Medicaid, a federal health insurance program for the poor, is mainly managed by the states and many of them, Republican ones, have chosen to not extend the aid first provided by Obamacare, and now by the stimulus plan. Many of them also impose mandatory work hours in order to get this health insurance coverage.
While healthcare expenses are increasing and the poor are both the most impacted by diseases and are the least insured, the federalization of the welfare protection system remains a huge challenge for the Biden administration.
 Marco Rubio, February 4, 2021. “That is not tax relief for working parents; it is welfare assistance.”
 See map. Source: NYC Health