Sherrod Brown on the COVID relief workers & families urgently need

Mini-pod: With poverty on the rise, Rebecca talks to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown about the debate in Congress around COVID economic relief — and the stakes for the tens of millions of workers and families struggling to stay afloat right now. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

A big part of the story of 2020 — amid all the hardship and suffering wrought by the pandemic and the Trump administration’s botched response — has been the effectiveness of income assistance at bringing down overall poverty rates. Following an unprecedented expansion of government-provided income assistance early in the year, poverty rates in the U.S. actually compared with pre-pandemic rates. But as the pandemic has raged on without an accompanying continuation of federal aid, poverty rates have begun to rise sharply and are now significantly higher than they were pre-covid. And poverty is on track to skyrocket if economic conditions remain grim.

These are the key findings of researchers at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, who have developed an approach for tracking and projecting U.S. poverty rates month to month during the pandemic. (As a quick aside, even though the definition of poverty they’re using deploys income thresholds that we at Off-Kilter view as well below what it actually costs to afford a basic standard of living… their estimates offer an incredibly useful metric for tracking variations in economic hardship during the crisis.)

For a look at the ongoing COVID debate in Washington, why Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism of a meaningful aid package is so dangerous, and the stakes for the tens of millions of workers and families struggling to stay afloat right now — Rebecca sat down (virtually) with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D) for a bonus episode of the pod.

This week’s guest:

  • Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

For more on the research discussed in this week’s pod:

  • for folks who want to dig into the Columbia researchers’ estimates, here you go
  • for folks who’d rather read an excellent summary of their research, this from Vox’s Dylan Matthews has you covered
  • and for folks looking to learn more about the critiques of current poverty measures like the OPM and the SPM, this explainer by Shawn Fremstad is a good place to start

TRANSCRIPT:

♪ I work and get paid like minimum wage

Sights to hit the clock by the end of the day

Hot from downtown into the hood where I slave

The only place I can afford ’cause my block ain’t safe

I spend most of my time working, tryna bring in the dough…. ♪

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

A big part of the story of 2020 — amid all the hardship and suffering wrought by the pandemic and the Trump administration’s botched response — has been the effectiveness of income assistance at bringing down overall poverty rates. Following an unprecedented expansion of government-provided income assistance earlier in the year, poverty rates in the U.S. actually dropped compared with pre-pandemic rates this spring. But as the pandemic has raged on without an accompanying continuation of federal aid, poverty rates have begun to rise sharply and are now significantly higher than they were pre-COVID. And poverty is on track to skyrocket further if economic conditions remain grim.

These are the key findings of researchers at the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. They’ve developed an approach for tracking and projecting U.S. poverty rates month to month during the pandemic. As a quick aside — even though the definition of poverty that they’re using deploys income thresholds that I view as well below what it actually costs to afford a basic standard of living, as does the federal government’s official poverty measure, which is incredibly overly austere and does not capture the actual overall poverty rate, in my opinion also — their estimates do offer an incredibly useful metric for tracking variations in economic hardship during the crisis. So, back to the Columbia researchers’ estimates, they find that 15.5 percent of Americans (that translates to 50.3 million people in the U.S.) were living in poverty in January 2020. That’s pre-pandemic, of course. In April 2020, for a little side-by-side comparison, the researchers find that after economic relief began in the form of relief measures, such as the $1,200 direct payments and a $600 plus up to unemployment insurance, the poverty rate, using their measure, went down to 13.9 percent overall.

But as relief measures were discontinued, for example, the $1,200 checks I just mentioned that ended up being a one-time thing and the $600 plus up to unemployment insurance that, of course, ran out in July, poverty rates, they found, began to rise again, reaching 16.7 percent or 54 million Americans living in poverty under their measure as of September 2020. So, for those following along at home, let’s break this down. That’s 4 million more people living in poverty in September 2020 than as of the beginning of the year, pre-pandemic. And looking in their crystal balls, by January 2021, depending on the unemployment picture, the Columbia researchers project that somewhere between 5 million and 12 million more people will be living in poverty under their measure compared with January 2020.

In a nation as wealthy as the U.S., poverty — and I say this often on this show — is always a political choice. But at a moment like this one, the choice before our federal leaders whether to allow poverty to continue to rise from already abysmal to now third-world conditions amid the pandemic and downturn, or to intervene to prevent needless hardship and suffering through more of the relief measures that we saw work earlier this year, as I was describing before, that choice couldn’t be more immediate nor more literal. So, for a look in real time at the debate in Congress around COVID economic relief, as well as the stakes for families who are struggling the most right now to stay afloat, I am incredibly grateful to Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, for taking the time to join this week’s pod. Let’s take a listen.

Senator, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show.

SENATOR BROWN: Of course, I’m thrilled to do it. And thanks, Rebecca, very much.

VALLAS: So, just to start things off and to get right into it, things have been extremely fluid in the congressional talks around COVID economic relief. You and I are talking on Tuesday midday. It often feels like, you know, who knows what day it even is anymore! Catch us up on where things stand with those talks.

BROWN: Well, we don’t know. We had Senator McConnell still saying no to darn near everything unless it’s something very limited and has all these liability protections for his corporate friends as part of it. But I think to look at where we are, so we just don’t know if he is finally going to do the right thing and put on the floor this compromise — much smaller than I want, much smaller than most progressives want, much smaller than the country needs — but a good step that will help unemployed workers and help people stay in their homes and help small businesses stay alive. But I think, Rebecca, you need to go back to what we did in March. And it was a time when the Senate and House actually came together. It was almost, it was unanimous in the Senate, almost so in the House. It was unemployment benefits. It was helping the small businesses. It was helping local governments. It was helping school. And it was doing the right thing. And it kept, according to one study, kept 13 million people out of poverty. It’s an example of government going big, doing big things, and having a huge positive impact. But since then, Mitch McConnell and Republicans have essentially said, I don’t see any urgency in doing anything, and he’s essentially done nothing. And now every day, more thousands of more people fall into poverty because Congress, because this Republican Senate’s sitting on its hands.

VALLAS: And I really appreciate your sort of setting the stage that way, because there’s been so much kind of both sides-ing going on in some of the media coverage of ongoing COVID relief talks, right? I mean, the House also passed the Heroes Act months ago, and it’s been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, as you said, has been obstructing relief in the Senate effectively since then.

I spoke in the opening of the show about some of the harrowing analysis from researchers, including at Columbia University, showing that poverty and hardship, as you mentioned, are skyrocketing right now as a direct result of inadequate relief. Meanwhile, states and cities are, of course, on track for unprecedented budget gaps that could also force draconian cuts and job losses at the state and local level. Talk to me about what’s at stake here for working families, and importantly, the relief measures that aren’t in the mix but that you’ve been fighting for and that need to be in the mix. I ask that question in part, obviously, given that there’s some level of media narrative out there that Democrats are the ones who are obstructing relief, given the nature of how modest this package is.

BROWN: Well, those narratives have no basis in fact, because you just outlined what happened in March. Then Speaker Pelosi and the House passed bills, passed the Heroes Act, I believe, in May, and then re-passed it again and have continued to try to get a significant number of dollars out to people. But I mean, the thing is, we have a road map here. We know what worked. We know what kept the economy afloat in March, April, May, June, July. We know what kept people from falling into poverty in March, April, May, June, July. We have the perfect roadmap. You do $600 a week unemployment benefit. You help small businesses through the PPP. You help local governments so they don’t do massive layoffs and eventually can administer the vaccine in the weeks ahead. You help local school districts so that it’s not just private schools that can reopen for children actually to come to school in person. It’s all schools. My granddaughters are in, grandchildren are in, public schools in Columbus. Some of the suburbs opened. The city schools don’t because of no federal funding that schools need to reconfigure classrooms and busses and cafeterias. So, we know exactly what we need to do.

Democrats have tried to do it repeatedly. Pelosi in the House trying to negotiate reduces their request each time, yet McConnell’s still unwilling to do anything. And I just can’t say enough. We know what works. We know the role of government is important, is key here, is essential here. And we know it will keep people out of poverty. It will mean fewer homeless people, less spread of the disease as a result. All of those things are just so clear if you really look at the failure of Mitch McConnell and the Senate.

VALLAS: And of course, a speedier economic recovery, given the risk of even greater long-term macroeconomic damage, if the federal fiscal response continues to fall short as economists on the left have been warning.

BROWN: Yeah, so I just want to comment on that here real quick. Somebody testified in front of our Banking, Housing Committee, the Chair of the Economics Department at Howard University, Kamala Harris’s alma mater, William Spriggs, and he said we didn’t fight World War II thinking this is really going to cost a lot, and I don’t know if we can afford it. And we don’t fight this the same way. This is expensive. I spoke with Janet Yellen today, the Secretary of the Treasury (designee that will be, I hope, confirmed), and she said that too: that we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do here. And we’ve got to spend the dollars it takes to keep this economy afloat and to keep the generational damage — Because if this continues like this and the economy continues to struggle at this level and really gets worse in the weeks and months ahead, it will have, it does damage for years, maybe generations. Because people just, it’s another half a generation that gets locked out of any opportunity. And we can’t afford that as a country. The pandemic’s written the great reveal, or it’s revealed, excuse me, especially to white America, the racial disparities in this country: the income inequality, the structural racism. And white America, in large part, has waked up to this in a way that they were ready to move and the political systems’ blocking it.

VALLAS: One of the policies that you have been most vocal in championing over the years, and which is now starting to get talked about in the context of both COVID economic relief, including actually we’ve now heard it from President-elect Joe Biden as something that should be in there, is an increase in the Child Tax Credit, starting to look at the Child Tax Credit as a potential tool to actually turn into something of a universal child allowance, given the horrible and long-term damage, as you were just describing, that can particularly be done to children even when they are exposed to poverty for very short periods of time. It’s obviously hard to think longer-term than just week to week in the context of COVID relief, given how many things are set to expire right now and where the absolute top priorities have to be in terms of renewals of those kinds of expirations like unemployment insurance and an eviction moratorium that’s also set to expire.

But looking a little longer term, what are the other key priorities that you hope get to become center stage issues next year on the economic front? I’m glad to get to ask you this question in large part because of some of what you were exactly just speaking to and have been one of the most vocal champions in Congress about, which is that poverty and inequality and the severe racial divide in America were already at unacceptable levels pre-COVID, with COVID really just sort of laying bare the lessons that you and others were trying to get Congress to listen to.

BROWN: Well, Dr. Cecilia Rouse, with whom I spoke today, is the designee for Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. And she a labor economist, and she said exactly that. The economy, the top lines may look pretty good, pre-COVID, but for many, many, many people in America — some would say a majority — but many tens of millions of people in America, the economy wasn’t looking that good. Their wages were stagnant. Opportunity was limited. So, we’ve got to do these investments. I mean, one of the things that I’m trying to work through my committee to get more attention for and ultimately to enact is to get the Federal Reserve into the banking business in the sense that provide, it’s called Banking for All, so that the 20 or 30 percent of Americans who don’t have any relationship with a bank (no savings account, they go to payday lenders, they pay more, they pay all kinds of fees) that they could have a bank account and do that through the Federal Reserve, do that through our postal system. And it could make a huge difference for a lot of low-income families. So, you do that.

You do the Earned Income Tax Credit. You do the Child Tax Credit refundable so that people would get a, low-income people would get, $250 a month check from the federal government as part of the Child Tax Credit. And you couple that with a bank account and what kinds of, you know, instead of — It costs too much to be poor with the fees and the late fees and the check-cashing fees and all that you have to do. And we want to blunt those costs and eliminate those costs for low-income families.

VALLAS: And Senator, I’m going to have to let you go in just a minute, because I know you’ve got a vote to get to. But it feels like I’d be remiss if I didn’t close on the following note, given what a loud voice you have been among Senate Democrats in sort of pushing back against this next challenge. One of the greatest challenges that we can expect in the new Congress is conservative hand-wringing around the need for so-called austerity. And I think that’s fair to say, no matter which way the Senate runoffs on January 5th go, but especially if the Republican Party retains control of the Senate. We’re already seeing them dust off their so-called their sort of favorite three-step playbook, where they jack up the deficit with tax cuts for the wealthy and then complain about the deficit and say that we can’t afford critical programs all of a sudden. We’re actually already hearing more of this, a renewed chorus of this, from some of your colleagues across the aisle in the Senate. What is your advice to progressives and to Democrats in Congress on dealing with another age of conservative-imposed austerity hand-wringing courtesy of the same lawmakers who conveniently all had selective amnesia about their lower the deficits back when it was the tax law they were fighting to pass just a few years ago?

BROWN: Yeah, you’re exactly right. That’s the prediction that is about as certain as the sun coming up tomorrow: that The Wall Street Journal editorial page for four years has cared not a whit about the deficit when it was time when they could push for big tax cuts that blew a trillion dollar plus hole in the deficit. But now they’ve got deficit religion. You see it already. You see it in Republican opposition to doing anything to helping people now. Secretary-designee Yellen is on to this. She is talking already about how important it is. The most important thing is to make people’s lives better. Again, go back to World War II. We didn’t talk about how much does this war cost, and we had to win the war. We have to win this fight. And you can call the Republicans hypocrites, but that’s what politicians already say about each other. So, I believe that. But I think you’ve really got to say, listen. They didn’t care about deficits when it was tax cuts for the rich. We want to scale back some of those tax cuts for the rich and begin to put that money into unemployment benefits and small businesses and helping people stay in their homes and deal with this coronavirus, because that’s our national interest to do that now.

VALLAS: Senator Brown is a senator from the great state of Ohio, a Democratic senator who’s always been a champion for low-income families, working families, families facing poverty in America: poverty that, of course, is a political choice and one that might not be nearly so prevalent if we had folks like Senator Brown in charge and calling the shots. Senator, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show and for everything that you’re doing to fight for low-income families and working families when it comes to COVID economic relief.

BROWN: Thank you, Rebecca. What a great interview. You know these issues so well, and thank you for your passion for making a difference.

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

♪ I want freedom (freedom)

Freedom (freedom)

Now, I don’t know where it’s at

But it’s calling me back

I feel my spirit is revealing,

And now we just tryna get freedom (freedom)

What we talkin’ bout…. ♪

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: tcf.org/off-kilter.