By Alfonso Fernandez
Washington, Jan 22 (efe-epa).- US President Joe Biden, citing a “moral obligation to treat our fellow Americans with the dignity and respect they deserve,” took executive action on Friday to increase assistance to low-income families affected by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of America is hurting. The virus is surging. We’re 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000. Families are going hungry. People are at risk of being evicted. Job losses are mounting again. We need to act. No matter how you look at it, we need to act,” the Democratic president said on his second full day in office.
Some 50 million of the 330 million people living in the United States, the nation hit hardest by Covid-19, are currently contending with food insecurity, according to Census Bureau data.
“We cannot, will not, let people go hungry,” Biden said. We have to act now.”
“We’re in a national emergency. We need to act like we’re in a national emergency. So we’ve got to move with everything we’ve got,” the president said.
In addition to the “moral obligation,” Biden pointed to a need to “act decisively and boldly to grow the economy for all Americans, not just for tomorrow, but in the future.”
The president, who has asked Congress to approve a $1.9 trillion package of measures to address both the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic, signed a pair of executive orders Friday aimed at providing immediate relief while seeking to enlist Republican support for the legislation.
The first order instructs the US Department of Agriculture to allow the individual states to augment Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits – food stamps – by 15 percent “for those who need it most.”
An additional 12 million people could see their SNAP benefits increase as a result of the order, according to the White House.
Another provision calls for expanding by 15 percent the benefits available under Pandemic-EBT, an electronic debit card program for students who would qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school.
The P-EBT allotment should be boosted “to accurately reflect the costs of missing meals and make it easier for households to claim benefits,” the administration said in a fact sheet.
Biden’s proposed pandemic-response legislation includes raising the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $15.00, which is significantly short of the $22.00 an hour that would be required to reflect inflation.
As a first step in that direction, the president signed a second executive order on Friday directing the government Office of Personnel Management to develop recommendations to increase the minimum wage for federal employees to $15 per hour.
On Dec. 27, now-former President Donald Trump signed a $900 billion pandemic relief bill that included means-tested $600 direct payments to individuals and an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits.
Yet the package was less than half the size of the first relief legislation, the $2.2-trillion CARES Act of last March, and Biden described it as no more than a “down payment” on what needs to be done.
The new administration’s $1.9 trillion plan calls for topping up the direct payments to individuals by $1,400 – for a total of $2,000 – and $400 a week in supplemental federal jobless benefits through September.
The official unemployment rate, which had held steady at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent for several months until the pandemic slammed the US economy, rose sharply at the start of the coronavirus crisis and shot up to 14 percent in May 2020.
Then came seven straight months of employment gains, following massive coronavirus-triggered job losses in March and April unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But the November increase was the lowest since the US labor market began to recover from the impact of lockdown orders, which led to the elimination of 20.7 million jobs last spring, and the economy lost 140,000 positions last month.