Briefing for June 1-4, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

Briefing for June 1-4, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

We are struck that one of the few certainties about the coronavirus outbreak is that low-income communities and workers in low-income, service sector occupations will be disproportionately impacted — likely in devastating fashion.

One step in combatting this will be to share information about what is happening and what can be done. That’s why we are offering a daily news service summarizing relevant stories, which you can read below.

If you would like to receive a daily briefing, feel free to email to subscribe.

Briefing for June 4, 2021

College vaccine requirements present major hurdles for some students: The New York Times reports: “Since March, more than 400 colleges and universities in the United States have announced vaccine mandates, requiring students to be immunized against the coronavirus. But the rules have been designed primarily with domestic students in mind, leaving international students scrambling — particularly those in India and Russia. Neither Covaxin nor the Sputnik V vaccine, which is manufactured in Russia, has been approved by the W.H.O. American students, however, have access to the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, three of the eight authorized by the health agency, according to a W.H.O. spokesman. The disparity could hinder colleges that have made it a major priority to retain international students, who brought in close to $39 billion in tuition dollars in the year before the pandemic, according to one analysis. ‘Universities want to enroll international students because they add diversity to the campus community — and they bring money,’ said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education. ‘It’s why this has been a subject of intense discussion.’” 

Newsom wants to spend millions on low-income mothers and their babies: From Kaiser Health News: “Amid a pandemic that has pushed millions of mothers out of the workplace, caused fertility rates to plunge, and heightened the risk of death for pregnant women, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic lawmakers are seeking a slate of health proposals for low-income families and children. Newsom, a self-described feminist and the father of four young children, has long advocated family-friendly health and economic policies. Flush with a projected budget surplus of $75.7 billion, state politicians have come up with myriad legislative and budget proposals to make poorer families healthier and wealthier. They include ending sales taxes on menstrual products and diapers; adding benefits such as doulas and early childhood trauma screenings to Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program; allowing pregnant women to retain Medi-Cal coverage for a year after giving birth; and a pilot program to provide a universal basic income to low-income new parents. ‘COVID-19 laid inequity bare for all to see,’ Assembly member Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) said in a written statement. She is the co-author of Senate Bill 65, led by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), which would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into family and health care programs annually, focusing on minority groups that Carrillo said were ‘pushed out of the social safety net by the prior White House.’” 

Many new moms get kicked off Medicaid two months after giving birth — Illinois wants to change that: Illinois Public Media looks at efforts in the state to reduce maternal deaths, particularly among Black mothers. One strategy: Make sure new moms don’t lose Medicaid shortly after giving birth. In April, Illinois became the first state to be approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to extend Medicaid up to a full year after a pregnancy. “Medicaid, the state and federal program mainly for low-income Americans, covers people with higher incomes during pregnancy — but most states kick these women off the rolls 60 days after they give birth. As a result, hundreds of thousands of women who’ve recently had a baby end up uninsured each year. ‘Disruptions in Medicaid coverage results in higher costs and worse health outcomes,’ HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press briefing in Aprilciting a federal report on the consequences of Medicaid churning. ‘More than half of pregnant women in Medicaid experienced a coverage gap in the first six months of postpartum care.’ With the extension of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, mothers in Illinois with incomes up to about double the federal poverty level can keep their coverage for a year postpartum. Several other states — including New Jersey, Georgia, and Virginia — are taking similar steps.” 

Appeals court rejects bid by landlords to resume evictions: The Hill reports that a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday denied a request by a group of landlords to resume evictions, leaving the temporary nationwide eviction moratorium intact for now. “The ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest twist in a multifront legal challenge to the eviction freeze that was enacted by federal public health officials as a way to keep financially distressed renters in their homes and out of crowded homeless shelters during the coronavirus pandemic. The move follows a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich, who struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium after finding the agency had overstepped its authority. But Friedrich, a Trump appointee, agreed to block her ruling from taking immediate effect to allow time for the Biden administration to appeal. This produced a mixed result for the challengers in the case, a group of landlords that includes the Alabama Association of Realtors and a number of co-plaintiffs.” 

Union considers a strike at plant that was virus hotspot: The Associated Press reports that workers at a South Dakota meatpacking plant that became a coronavirus hotspot last year are considering a strike after contract negotiations between Smithfield Foods and the union have stalled. “The Sioux Falls chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union threatened to move for a walkout and work stoppage if the Virginia-based company does not resume negotiations on a new four-year contract. The dispute has centered on the wages for meatpacking employees, health care costs, and break times. The union said workers have risked their health and lives throughout the pandemic, arguing the company should do more for its employees. The plant became an early indicator of just how vulnerable meatpacking plants were to the pandemic when a surge of infections surfaced among workers in April last year. Four plant workers died from COVID-19 and nearly 1,300 were infected. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus at the plant.” 

Briefing for June 3, 2021

Stimulus checks substantially reduced hardship, study shows: The New York Times reports: “In offering most Americans two more rounds of stimulus checks in the past six months, totaling $2,000 a person, the federal government effectively conducted a huge experiment in safety net policy. Supporters said a quick, broad outpouring of cash would ease the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Skeptics called the policy wasteful and expensive. The aid followed an earlier round of stimulus checks, sent a year ago, and the results are being scrutinized for lessons on how to help the needy in less extraordinary times. A new analysis of Census Bureau surveys argues that the two latest rounds of aid significantly improved Americans’ ability to buy food and pay household bills and reduced anxiety and depression, with the largest benefits going to the poorest households and those with children. The analysis offers the fullest look at hardship reduction under the stimulus aid. Among households with children, reports of food shortages fell 42% from January through April. A broader gauge of financial instability fell 43%. Among all households, frequent anxiety and depression fell by more than 20%.” 

The “grief pandemic” will torment Americans for years: From Kaiser Health News: “With nearly 600,000 in the U.S. lost to COVID-19 — now a leading cause of death — researchers estimate that more than 5 million Americans are in mourning, including more than 43,000 children who have lost a parent. The pandemic — and the political battles and economic devastation that have accompanied it — have inflicted unique forms of torment on mourners, making it harder to move ahead with their lives than with a typical loss, said sociologist Holly Prigerson, co-director of the Cornell Center for Research on End-of-Life Care. The scale and complexity of pandemic-related grief have created a public health burden that could deplete Americans’ physical and mental health for years, leading to more depression, substance misuse, suicidal thinking, sleep disturbances, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and impaired immune function. ‘Unequivocally, grief is a public health issue,’ said Prigerson, who lost her mother to COVID in January. ‘You could call it the grief pandemic.’” 

Despite vaccines, nursing homes still struggle with COVID outbreaks, deaths: NBC News looks at the continuing struggles of nursing homes during the pandemic. “COVID-19 vaccines have allowed nursing homes in the U.S. to make dramatic progress since the dark days of the pandemic, but senior care facilities are still experiencing scattered outbreaks that are largely blamed on unvaccinated staff members. The outbreaks and ensuing shutdowns have jolted family members who were just starting to enjoy in-person visits with loved ones for the first time in a year. While the outbreaks inside nursing homes now are much smaller, less frequent, and less severe than during the height of the pandemic, there continue to be hundreds of deaths each week attributed to the coronavirus. According to federal data, 472 nursing home deaths were related to COVID-19 in the first two weeks of May, down from 10,675 in the first two weeks of January.” 

There’s a massive child care shortage and the market can’t fix it: Elliot Haspel of the Robins Foundation writes for the Washington Post: “Parents of young children have had a rough pandemic, facing down closed playgrounds, closed pools, and closed child-care centers. While states have largely opened up, these parents now face a knock-on crisis: Child-care programs are contending with massive and unprecedented staffing shortages, leading to fewer spots and long waiting lists. The rotten seed of America’s disinvestment in child care has finally sprouted, and without a new, permanent source of public funding, the sector is likely to crash and pull working families down with it. Child-care programs have long struggled with staffing because wages are so low: The national median is $11.65 an hour, and around half of programs don’t offer health insurance benefits. The current moment is an order of magnitude worse. While other industries like retail and fast food are responding to labor shortages by raising compensation, most child-care programs have no ability to follow suit. Even with many states preparing to end enhanced unemployment insurance payments, day cares are still increasingly uncompetitive employers.” 

Rural communities left out in federal income limits formula: Writing for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Joshua Stewart, senior advocacy manager at Fahe, and H. Luke Shaefer, director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, make the case that the funding formulas for many federally-funded housing and community development programs are “fatally flawed,” particularly for rural Americans. They write: “Concentrated rural poverty is skewing the calculations at the foundation of the way we distribute federal assistance to low-income families and communities. People affected by this are doubly disadvantaged by living in a poor county and a poor state. It should be noted that the rural areas most heavily impacted by this disparity contain some of the highest percentages of minority populations. Where you live should not determine what government services you are able to access. Nor, in a prosperous nation such as ours, should any family be forced to choose between paying for housing, food, or medical care. We can live in a country where we make it possible for everyone to prosper. Solving this accidental disparity would be a small first step.” 

Maine bill would decriminalize homelessness: From the Maine Beacon: “A bill that seeks to limit contact between police and unhoused people for low-level violations has bipartisan backing, as well as the support of Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey and some of the state’s law enforcement brass, as it nears a full floor vote in the Maine House. Lawmakers and advocates for people experiencing homelessness are hopeful that support will give the bill enough momentum to be signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills. ‘The attorney general is not opposed to it. We’re going to work together on it,’ said state Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), the sponsor of the bill. ‘So, I actually think it’s going to be supported.’ Police in Maine frequently issue criminal trespassing orders to unhoused people for being on public property after hours. It is illegal in most Maine towns and cities to set up a tent in a local park. In the last year, police have carried out sweeps in Portland and Bangor to shut down encampments of unhoused residents that have cropped up, confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, and clothing. Advocates say the over-policing of homelessness does nothing to solve the underlying issues of poverty, trauma, substance use, physical and mental health conditions, and inadequate affordable housing that drive the state’s homeless crisis, and only makes life harder for a highly vulnerable population.” 

Briefing for June 2, 2021

Foster and migrant kids shut out of vaccines: Politico reports that “a half-million foster children in the U.S. and unaccompanied migrant teens at the southern border could be prevented from receiving coronavirus vaccines because of federal and state consent laws that require a parent or guardian’s approval. Regulators authorized emergency use of one COVID-19 shot in kids as young as 12 this month, accelerating the Biden administration’s broad immunization plans and school reopening plans. But that created unintended consequences for at-risk children: Because the vaccine, from Pfizer, has not received full regulatory approval, it has a murky status compared to the battery of routine vaccinations recommended by federal agencies. That means kids in many states can only receive it with a parent or guardian’s consent — a hurdle that’s impossible to meet for many children separated from their biological parents. While drugmakers are studying how well COVID-19 vaccines work in babies as young as a few months old, there is no timeline for when shots will be fully approved for teens or kids. That means thousands of youth already disproportionately at risk for chronic health conditions, and many without regular access to health care, could be last in line for a vaccine the Biden administration has said is essential to returning children to school and ending the pandemic.” 
Better data can save American renters from evictions: From New America’s Thread newsletter: “Nearly 9 million households — or one-quarter of all American tenants — are significantly behind on rent payments and are at risk of displacement. Business could be booming in eviction courts around the county when proceedings eventually resume. Local governments, legal aid groups, and housing nonprofits will undoubtedly scramble to keep threatened tenants housed. They’ll thankfully be helped along by a presidential administration that’s providing more aid dollars and improved rental assistance programming. Yet making these benefits more easily accessible for tenants is no easy feat given one significant roadblock: a blatant lack of eviction data. As an eviction case winds its way through the legal system, it amasses data: a filing date, the address of the rental property, names of the plaintiff (landlord) and defendant (tenant), and case outcome. Clerks at county civil courts are usually responsible for its collection. Unfortunately, one-third of U.S. counties don’t have this data or can’t easily provide it. Lacking national guidelines for recording eviction information, some courts keep only handwritten records, while others store data only on a local computer, never shared to an online database. The data is often outdated or missing important pieces. If you’re a researcher or decision-maker who does manage to get their hands on this data, converting it into a readily-usable format for analysis and policy work is extremely time-consuming and difficult to do at scale.” 
Mississippi’s Black communities made strides on COVID rates — Next up, vaccines: From Kaiser Health News: “Mississippi had already narrowed an outsize gap in COVID-19 incidence and mortality rates for its Black residents, leveraging community partnerships to promote masks and physical distancing while dispelling rumors. Now health advocates hope to stretch those partnerships to help ensure vaccines reach all Mississippians equally. It appears to be working. Vaccine rates are neck and neck among Black and white residents, with available state data showing a slightly higher rate for whites and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing the opposite. Mississippi is one of the few states where the Black rate isn’t lagging significantly behind the rate for whites. And as of mid-May, African Americans, who make up 38% of the state’s population, are getting 40% of the doses given each week, said state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers. ‘We continue to reach parity with our doses,’ Byers said during a May press conference.”
Five tips from mental health experts on transitioning out of COVID restrictions: The PBS NewsHour offers suggestions from mental health experts on how Americans can help transition into the country’s new normal

  • Find the right coping skills: “People need to acknowledge their anxiety, and find the best coping skills to move forward.” 
  • Check in to find your mental health “baseline”: Psychiatrist Dr. Jessi Gold, from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, says that during the pandemic our baseline stress has changed. The things that did not cause us stress before the pandemic might be hard to deal with now, and vice versa.  
  • Evaluate your feelings on an ongoing basis: “It’s important to pay attention to these changes and make new evaluations about what is stressful, and how you handle it, while our workplaces and communities adjust.” 
  • Find common ground: Through the pandemic, and as venues reopen, people have different levels of personal safety. When interacting with people who had a different response to the health threat it’s important to find common ground but also to set boundaries. 
  • Have more conversations about mental health: “I think that we will be in a place where all of us will be in a better, more healthy place if we can talk about things, including our feelings, out loud,” said Gold. 

COVID leaves huge medical bills for some survivors: From CNN: “With the pandemic tidal wave finally receding in the United States, the damage left behind is finally emerging, and the financial toll on families laid bare. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 115 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and the full picture of the medical costs and debts facing survivors of Covid-19 is still being assessed. Survivors of the virus, like Irena Schulz of South Carolina, believe now is the time to make a change, and help the large number of Americans that are struggling financially from medical debt. ‘We need a health care system that actually works for us… We should not have to worry about whether we can afford to go to the doctor, or whether we’re going to be able to afford the procedure or the treatments or the drugs. We shouldn’t have to worry about this,’ Schulz said.” 

The problem with free transit: From Slate: “There’s something in the air. Many U.S. cities waived bus fares during the pandemic, including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles — where buses are still free and will remain so until the pilot begins. Kansas City was already getting rid of fares on its buses before COVID. San Francisco supervisors want to make transit free this summer. Making the MBTA free is a big plank in the platform of Michelle Wu, one of the favorites in next year’s Boston mayoral election. The leading candidate for Manhattan borough president wants free city buses in New York, too. Freeways are free once you’ve bought the car — why shouldn’t transit be free once you’ve bought a pair of shoes? Proponents say universal free transit will help the poor, end the carceral cycle of fare evasion, avoid the stigma and inefficiency of means-testing, and boost ridership. Unfortunately, on that last point — getting more people more places without cars — the prospects for free transit do not look so good.” 

Briefing for June 1, 2021

Democrats plot Medicaid expansion backdoor in red states refusing program: Politico reports that “Democratic lawmakers are rallying around an effort to extend health insurance in states that have refused to expand Medicaid, believing they have a limited window to help millions who’ve been unable to get coverage because of intractable GOP opposition to the Obamacare program. Democrats had hoped that President Joe Biden’s election, along with the promise of new federal cash from the recent COVID-19 relief package for states to expand Medicaid, would move at least some of the dozen remaining holdout states. But there’s little indication those states are budging, which is energizing a push among Democratic lawmakers for a new federal program guaranteeing coverage for low-income adults long shut out of Medicaid expansion. ‘I think in most of them, like Texas, it’s not a question of dollars, it’s a question of wanting to be ideologically opposed to any additional role for government in helping impoverished people,’ said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), the House Ways and Means health subcommittee chairman, who’s working on a coverage proposal. ‘The only way we overcome that is through a federal initiative.’” 

A criminal record shouldn’t mean a lifetime of poverty: In a new report for the Center for American Progress, Rebecca Vallas, Sharon Dietrich, and Beth Avery look at the growing popularity of “clean slate” laws, which make criminal record clearance both automatic and automated, so that everyone eligible to have their record sealed or expunged can access the benefits of record-clearing, regardless of whether or not they are able to afford a lawyer. “Bipartisan momentum for both clean slate and fair chance licensing has exploded, with dozens of states advancing these policy reforms to remove barriers to economic security for their justice-impacted residents. Meanwhile, bipartisan momentum has begun trickling up to the federal level as well, with Congress taking steps on both the record-clearing and licensing front and President Joe Biden pledging to adopt these and other second chance policies during the 2020 presidential campaign.” 

Strengthening the Child Tax Credit  What comes next? Former Center on Budget and Policy Priorities president Bob Greenstein, now a visiting fellow at the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, writes on the need to make the Biden administration’s changes to the Child Tax Credit permanent. Cost is a major concern on Capitol Hill, Greenstein writes, with one possible solution being to scale back the CTC for more affluent families. But that seems unlikely, Greenstein concludes: “For most of the CTC’s history, from the tax law enacted in 2001 to the tax law enacted in 2017, the credit phased out fully for married filers with two children when their income reached $150,000 a year. There’s no evidence this did anything to limit the credit’s political popularity; policymakers maintained and expanded the credit over that period. Due to changes enacted as part of the 2017 tax-cut legislation, however, the CTC now goes in full to married filers with incomes up to $400,000 and doesn’t phase out fully for a married filer with two children until income reaches $480,000, a level more than triple the credit’s previous upper limit. The flagship Congressional CTC expansion proposal of recent years that attracted broad Democratic support and from which nearly all the elements of the American Rescue Plan’s CTC expansion are drawn — the American Family Act introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Senator Michael Bennet, and other lawmakers — sought to lower the cost of its CTC expansion somewhat by scaling back the CTC at the top. Under it, the CTC would begin phasing out for married filers when their incomes topped $180,000 and would phase out entirely for married filers with two children when their income reached $220,000 (rather than when it reached $480,000). But that isn’t on the table now. It would entail raising taxes on some households making less than $400,000, which President Biden has pledged not to do.” 

North Carolina has vaccinated 13,000 farmworkers  Advocates are making it happen: From Southerly and Enlace Latino NC: “According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), 13,998 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered to the farmworker community from March 3 to May 21 — 19% of the estimated 72,000 farmworkers to arrive in N.C. this year. At least 67,495 of those workers have completed the series of doses. Data are based on survey reports from local teams in 37 counties. Elizabeth Freeman, director of the NCDHHS’s Farmworker Health Program, said that on March 3, when all farmworkers became eligible to receive the vaccine, ‘people were getting the vaccine that day.’ The speed at which farmworkers are getting vaccinated is a testament to the silver lining that many worker advocates have highlighted during the pandemic: in the thick of it, coordinated partnerships among nonprofit advocacy groups, health departments and clinics, and local governments are building at a rapid pace. ‘I see it as a critical moment of so many people coming together to respond to the challenge,’ said Freeman.” 

COVID outbreak at Smithfield packing plant was worse than reported, OSHA documents indicate: From the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting: “The COVID-19 outbreak at Smithfield Foods’ Milan, Missouri, plant — the focus of a worker safety lawsuit that garnered national attention last year — resulted in two worker deaths and was worse than previously thought, according to newly obtained federal documents. Early on in the pandemic, the Sullivan County Health Department told local news station KTVO that 14 workers had tested positive. And in late May 2020, the local hospital director told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that 35 cases were tied to the plant. Since then, the health department and the company have declined to provide figures that would show the outbreak’s scope. But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found the total number of cases was likely more than double what has been previously reported. By the end of May 2020, at least 77 workers were presumed to be positive for the virus, and more than 300 were either suspected to have the virus or had been in close contact with a positive case. Also, at least two workers at the plant died from the virus last year, according to the OSHA inspections obtained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. One died July 7, 2020, and the other died October 22, 2020.” 

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