The U.S. Capitol. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Chris Duncombe

The pandemic has devastated the economy, and people in Virginia are struggling to stay afloat. Yet, even though the House of Representatives passed a major relief package on May 15, the U.S. Senate has failed to find agreement on a comprehensive relief bill since March. Their inaction threatens to leave families to face this crisis on their own. 

Nearly one out of every four children in Virginia lives in a household that is either not getting enough to eat or is behind on housing payments. One out of five adult renters are behind in their rent payments. This hardship is being felt more acutely by Virginians of color who already faced barriers before the pandemic. More than 1 out of every 8 working people in Virginia who identify as Black, Latino, or Asian American and Pacific Islander were unemployed this summer compared to 1 out of every 19 who identify as non-Hispanic white.

The state and localities are projecting massive shortfalls and aid from the federal government is needed so those gaps don’t make the recession worse. The Virginia Finance Secretary confirmed last week that the state is projecting a $2.7 billion revenue shortfall. This jeopardizes resources for schools and health care, among many other vital public services. Gov. Northam’s August budget amendments remove more than $700 million in direct aid to Virginia’s prekindergarten, elementary and secondary schools compared to what was previously passed back in March at a time when more resources are needed, not fewer as schools completely remake themselves in response to the pandemic.

The initial responses from Congress including the aid in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act have been crucial for expanding testing and providing some economic support for families. Unfortunately, the largest pot of fiscal relief is set to expire on Dec. 30 of this year. It’s clear the impacts from the pandemic will continue long after that date. Other federal actions have only addressed certain aspects of the crisis. The federal eviction moratorium is critical for helping to keep a roof over people’s heads, yet it won’t stop rent payments from piling up and only applies in some situations. The moratorium needs to be coupled with robust rental assistance, something Congress needs to include in the next relief package. 

Unless something dramatically changes soon, the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration will not reach another bipartisan agreement on a legislative COVID relief package. That is not acceptable. The needs are clear: help for families to put food on the table, help for families to pay the rent, adequate and continued benefits for people who have lost their jobs, help for families to pay for childcare and assistance to state and local governments to protect core public services like education. Half measures like the “skinny” bill put forward by Senate Republican leaders pale in comparison to the needs of the moment and are not going to solve these challenges. 

There are wide differences in the proposals being discussed and limited time to reach an agreement. The House has approved a $3 trillion dollar package (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or HEROES) back in May. Senate Republicans have proposed a $500-$700 billion “skinny” bill and the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus has put together a $2 trillion package. But nothing has moved through both chambers. 

Absent an immediate and robust response from Congress, families will watch their costs mount without meaningfully improved employment prospects. Virginia representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate must respond to this unrelenting crisis by strengthening food (SNAP) and housing assistance, extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits, providing additional child care assistance, and allocating additional aid to states and local governments that can help prevent further layoffs and cuts.

Federal policymakers need to put politics aside and pass a relief package that is strong enough to get us through this crisis.

Chris Duncombe is policy director at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis