Exhale. Relief is on the way. President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill cleared the Senate with the narrowest of margins. It was a grueling process. As a delaying tactic, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) demanded that the entire 600-plus-page bill be read aloud. It took more than 10 hours for Senate clerks to read. The ridiculous demand imposed no hardship on any senator. Most, including Johnson himself, drifted in and out of the reading, which lasted until 2 a.m. on Friday, March 5. The senators were not inconvenienced — they were under no obligation to be seated as the legislation was read. The inconvenience, instead, was on the clerks who read for several hours, and to what end?
No matter. The delay did not prevent the legislation from passing, although it passed on strictly party lines. Do any Republicans represent the poor people who hunger for relief? And what about Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who dug in his heels to limit relief checks to the “wealthy,” reduce unemployment benefits from a proposed $400 per week down to $300. West Virginia is one of our nation’s poorest states. Their “moderate” senator turned his back on his constituents, watering down the House plan to provide more.
Still, essential components of the legislation remained. The amended bill may pass Congress as early as March 10, retained help to cities and states, support COVID-19 vaccinations, and a child credit that will put money in people’s pockets. The legislation is, in some ways, disappointing. In many other ways, it is a step in the right direction.
At moments like this, I think of folks like Elder Betty Shabazz, who always says, “find the good and praise it.” So we must praise the legislation that has passed and what it will mean to those struggling in the face of this pandemic. We must praise the money that poor people with children will get. And we must praise the relief that will come to small businesses, which have a two-week window to get ahead of the capitalist exploiters who have manipulated the system.
We must also embrace our disappointment as motivation to move forward. Thanks, Sen. Bernie Sanders, for continuing your passionate fight for a $15 minimum wage. Why have so many settled at $11 or raised the issue of differential minimum wages based on the cost of living? No matter where you go, a McDonald’s or Burger King sandwich costs about the same unless there are sales. So does food. Housing costs may differ, and that’s worth consideration. Here’s the other question — how much poverty are we prepared to accept? Are we prepared to accept its consequences?
We are also disappointed that President Biden has backed off student loan forgiveness, suggesting that it might be limited to $10,000 per borrower. The backbone of Biden support, Black women, carry the most enormous student loan debt. Biden and his team need to target student loan relief and ensure that those who shouldered the most debt get the most help. While there are certainly flaws to the Biden-Warren plan for total student loan debt forgiveness, the Biden proposal does not deal with the racial wealth gap and how Black students often pay more to get less in higher education.
I am not complaining. It would be unseemly in the face of this victory. I am merely saying there is so much work to do. If we are tempted to take a victory lap around the passage of COVID-19 relief, we must also be ready for the next steps. The House of Representatives passed HR1, which is an election protection measure that guarantees voting rights.
Already, there are more than 200 voter suppression proposed legislation that comes from more than 40 states. In Georgia, the state legislature has crafted a bill that directly attacks the efforts of voter organizers. It limits Sunday voting, negating the efforts of “All Souls to the Polls.” It forbids the distribution of food and water to those who have been standing in line for hours. Georgia legislators know the power of the Black vote. They want to diminish it.
Since the mid-1990s, the Black church has called for “all souls to the polls.” Some folks don’t want our souls there. They want to continue their autocratic nonsense, and unless we vote, despite obstacles, they’ll have their way. Passing COVID-19 relief is a step in the right direction. But it must be the first step, not the last.
Malveaux is an economist and author.