Posts Tagged "Congress"

Good News on Health Insurance in Pandemic

To paraphrase a U.S. senator in 1977, the moral test of government is how it treats the sick, the poor, and its children. That rings especially true during an historic public health emergency like COVID.

Congress came through with financial relief to blunt the pandemic’s impact, and the money that flowed through the economy provided more Americans with health insurance, while also reducing poverty.

Several newly released U.S. Census reports “show how much vigorous policies can do to prevent poverty and preserve access to health care,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded.

The Uninsured. During the pandemic, the share of all adults lacking health insurance declined from 9.2% in 2019 to 8.6% in 2021, reversing the trend of a rising uninsured rate in prior years. The rate dropped as Congress improved access and affordability during COVID by passing large premium reductions for policies purchased on the federal and state exchanges and by requiring states that receive Medicaid funds to expand their coverage of poor and low-income workers during the pandemic.

Congress has extended the premium reductions through 2025, but the federal enhancements to Medicaid are set to expire, leaving states to determine the extent to which they will cover their low-income workers in the future.

The Poor. The COVID aid passed by Congress lifted nearly 14 million Americans out of poverty over the past two years, according to Census. This statistic aligns with earlier research showing the financial assistance was particularly effective in helping low-income workers and people who were struggling financially prior to the pandemic. …Learn More

ACA Policyholders May Dodge a Bullet

It looks like some 13 million people who buy their health insurance on the state and federal exchanges may not see large hikes in their premiums next year after all.

The more generous premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act (ACA) policyholders approved in 2021 under the American Rescue Plan for COVID relief are set to expire at the end of this year. There have been months of uncertainty over whether Congress could pass a bill to continue the subsidies.

But The Washington Post reports that the House and Senate are on a path to agreeing to extend them for three more years, along with allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of some prescription drugs.

Last year, the American Rescue Plan enhanced the ACA’s original subsidies by capping insurance premiums at 8.5 percent of a worker’s income for 2021 and 2022. If the caps are renewed, ACA policyholders would also avoid the “double whammy” of insurance companies’ 2023 premium hikes, which they have started submitting to their state insurance regulators.

The prospect of an agreement comes months after state insurance commissioners warned lawmakers that the uncertainty around whether the subsidies would continue meant that some insurers would raise 2023 premiums by more than they might have. ACA subsidies make health insurance more affordable to more people, which takes some pressure off of premiums by expanding the pool of customers and reducing insurers’ risk.

Two groups that historically have paid more for health insurance are benefitting the most from a premium cap set at 8.5 percent of income: middle-income workers, who tend to pay a larger percentage of their income for an ACA policy, and older workers, who pay higher premiums because insurers view them as risky.

Before the caps were put in place, workers earning four or more times the federal poverty level did not get any subsidies and paid full price for ACA coverage. Without the assistance, for example, a 40-year-old earning about $51,500 would be paying 20 percent more – or $438 per month instead of the $365 she currently pays, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

Premiums would’ve been 62 percent higher in New York and more than double in Wyoming. …Learn More

CARES check

COVID Relief Checks Helped Needy the Most

In the pandemic’s early days, the unraveling of economic life was breathtaking. Some 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits in the second week of March 2020. A record 6.6 million joined them the following week.

By April, government checks were starting to land in workers’ bank accounts, bringing the urgent relief Congress intended. The unemployed used the often-substantial assistance – up to $3,400 for a family of four – to cover basic expenses, and the people who were holding on to their jobs saved for possibly difficult days ahead.

New research shows that the benefits of this assistance disproportionately went to those who needed it most: low-income workers and people who had financial problems before COVID hit.

The relief checks “have been more of a lifeline for individuals who were struggling,” the study concluded. “Rather than simply help prevent widening inequality,” the relief “may have helped close the gap.”

Consider the workers who either had great difficulty paying their debts in 2019 or had been spending more than they earned. Thanks to the first round of relief distributed in 2020, both groups saw improvement in three major areas, according to the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

The disadvantaged workers experienced the largest reductions in financial stress and felt more satisfied with their finances. They also felt less financially fragile, reporting that it was easier to come up with $400 in cash for an emergency like a car repair. And their ability to save increased.

The researchers said they couldn’t directly credit the relief checks for these improvements. Another important factor – the enhanced unemployment benefit of $600 per week – was also simultaneously at play. But one analysis in this study did find that the people who had received the checks saw more gains than the workers who were still waiting for their checks when they participated in the Internet survey in April 2020 that the researchers used.

As was widely acknowledged at the time, lower-paid hourly workers suffered the brunt of the pandemic-related layoffs. The researchers found that $60,000 in yearly income was a sort of dividing line: households that earned less benefited more from the government assistance than households that earned over $60,000. The lower-income households were more likely to build up their checking and savings account balances. …Learn More

Money puzzle

Is Americans’ Savings Buffer Wearing Thin?

COVID has worn Americans down emotionally. But it might be eating away at their financial reserves too – at least for some people.

As the pandemic has dragged on, many people said in newly released surveys that they are more anxious about their finances and feel that their savings are wearing thin.

We won’t get a true picture of the pandemic’s impact until it is far away in the rear-view mirror. For one thing, Congress’ intent when it doled out historic amounts of cash assistance to workers was to carry them through the COVID lockdowns and resulting unemployment. And it worked.

After federal relief checks were deposited into bank accounts, the saving rate shot up to about 34 percent in April 2020 and to almost 27 percent in March 2021 – the highest levels this country has seen in decades. The rate has floated down to single digits as people have spent the extra money but remains relatively high.

Recent job gains and wage increases should also bolster balance sheets. Businesses added 626,000 more jobs in June through September than the U.S. Department of Labor had originally estimated, and October was a blockbuster month, with 531,000 new jobs created. In the November jobs report, unemployment hit a pre-pandemic low of 4.2 percent.

But these signs of progress are mixed in with feelings of unease. One thing is clear from surveys of workers by T. Rowe Price, said Joshua Dietch, vice president: The challenges that existed before COVID “didn’t get any lighter as a result of the pandemic.”

NPR also fielded a financial survey in August and September of this year. More than a third of U.S. households said they are having “serious financial problems.” And the workers who have suffered the most during the economic downturn last year – people of color – are in the worst shape: more than half of Black, Hispanic, and Native American households said their financial problems were serious.

A deterioration in savings could be behind that feeling of financial insecurity. Nearly 40 percent of households in NPR’s survey with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said they have no “savings to fall back on” – that is double the share who reported having no savings prior to COVID. The share of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans who lack savings also doubled, though to much higher levels of 63 percent, 56 percent, and 55 percent, respectively. …Learn More

The Cares Act

CARES Act’s Loan Forbearance is Working

As the pandemic was sinking into our collective consciousness a year ago, Congress, fearing economic calamity, allowed Americans to temporarily halt their mortgage and student loan payments.

By the end of October – seven months after President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Americans had postponed some $43 billion in debt, including car loans and credit cards, which many lenders deferred voluntarily. Billions more are still being added to the total amount in forbearance.

Fast action in Congress “resulted in substantial financial relief for households,” says a new study by researchers at some of the nation’s top business schools. Their recent analysis found that the assistance went where it was needed – to “financially vulnerable borrowers living in regions that experienced the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the greatest deterioration in their economic conditions.”

When lenders grant forbearance they agree to waive their customers’ debt payments for a specified period of time. For example, Congress said borrowers could request that their payments on federally backed mortgages be deferred by six months to a year.

Although forbearance was less visible than the checks taxpayers also received under the CARES Act, the financial lift was equally potent. Customers who received loan forbearance saved an average of $3,200 just on their mortgages last year – this compares with $3,400 in stimulus checks for a family of four.

Congress also automatically suspended all payments on federal student loans, saving borrowers an average $140 last year, and President Biden has just extended the forbearance until at least Oct. 1. Lenders, in an attempt to prevent massive loan defaults on their books, voluntarily gave consumers a break last year on two types of loans that weren’t part of the CARES Act: automobile loans ($430 saved) and credit cards ($70 saved).

Forbearance is only temporary relief, because the missed payments will eventually have to be made up. But in a telling indication that borrowers didn’t want to fall behind, just a third of the people who asked for debt relief actually used it. In these cases, forbearance “acts as a credit line” borrowers can draw on – if they really need it. …Learn More

Hands fighting over a rope

Top Economists Seek Solutions to Inequality

Something remarkable is happening in the economics profession. Top researchers in the field have begun arguing for policies to alleviate growing U.S. income and wealth inequality.

For decades, inequality wasn’t taken very seriously by economists. But that view “has changed dramatically,” said James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin, who moderated a Zoom panel at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations last week.

Inequality, Galbraith said, has “become one of the most important questions economists face.”

And COVID-19, argued Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a panelist, “has brought out very forcefully the nature of the inequalities in our society” and has “exacerbated those inequalities.”

The pandemic’s effects include larger increases in unemployment for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino and often work for small businesses devastated by efforts to suppress the virus. In addition, front-line workers like home health aides and meat-packing workers are being exposed to the virus but don’t always have paid sick time. There are also growing concerns about the longevity gap and about a widening educational gap between students from poor and high-income neighborhoods resulting from online learning.

The economists, having agreed inequality is a problem, identified the myriad forces driving it. They range from the persistent segregation of Black and white neighborhoods to the ability of the wealthy to invest and accumulate more wealth, while wage workers can barely get by. In a cutthroat global economy, the decline of unions has also stripped workers of their ability to bargain with employers for higher wages, they said.

Another panelist, Teresa Ghilarducci, brought attention to the inequality that exists among retirees. This can be seen in the downward mobility many people experience after they retire and can no longer support the standard of living they had while they were working.

To address these complex problems, the economists said a comprehensive policy agenda is needed that includes beefing up Social Security benefits – the great equalizer – for disadvantaged retirees, more taxation of inheritances, educational equality at the preschool through college levels, sturdier social safety nets, and new labor rules that give workers back some of the power they have lost.

Another panelist, Jason Furman, former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, agrees that an array of policies will be required to combat inequality. But he also argued that the two major relief bills Congress passed last year – a total of $2.9 trillion – probably reduce inequality. …Learn More

Belongings on the lawn

Crisis for Renters Threatens to Get Worse

Many unemployed and underemployed workers have run out of options for paying the rent. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Aspen Institute, and other organizations estimate that up to 40 million renters risk being evicted this winter. Congress is currently negotiating a new COVID-19 relief package but it’s not yet known whether it will extend a CDC moratorium on evictions or go beyond the Cares Act last spring and provide rental assistance to help renters and, by extension, their landlords.

Squared Away spoke with Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about what she describes as an impending calamity.

Q: How bad is the current situation?

Saadian: It’s really hard to get data on how many people have been evicted because there isn’t a national database – only state data. But we know that nearly one in five renters are behind on their rent, and they’re disproportionately Black and brown renters. When the CDC moratorium on evictions expires Dec. 31, renters are going to owe somewhere between $25 billion and $70 billion. That’s a huge amount of back rent that renters realistically can’t afford to pay off. So what we’re likely to see is a huge increase in evictions and, in the worse cases, homelessness unless Congress extends the moratorium and provides really robust resources for emergency rental assistance.

Q: What do you expect if the moratorium isn’t extended beyond Dec. 31?

It would be a calamity. Because of the loopholes in the CDC moratorium and because of the sheer amount of rent renters owe, if there’s any gap between when the moratorium expires and the Biden administration takes action – if they do – you’re going to see potentially millions of people lose their homes in the dead of winter when we’re dealing with a resurgence of COVID. It’s an emergency on top of an emergency.

Q: A UCLA study said that 44 states had moratoriums but that 27 have lifted them and that the resulting evictions have resulted in more than 10,000 deaths. Make the connection between housing and health.

When low-income people are evicted from their homes, they don’t have a lot of good options. They either are doubling or tripling up with other families, or they go into homeless shelters. In either case, it’s more difficult to social distance, and it’s easier for the virus to spread. If Congress doesn’t take action, it harms all of us. Not only does it mean more of us dying from COVID but it puts more strain on our health care system. 

Q: This is a complicated issue, because small landlords have to pay their mortgages and can’t necessarily afford to cover tenants’ rents. What is your position on that?

The best solution for both renters and landlords is emergency rental assistance because that eliminates the back rent renters owe and makes up the lost income landlords need to operate their property. It is not every day that landlords and renters can agree. A lot of landlords don’t like the moratorium but it’s absolutely essential to have an extension of the CDC moratorium at least until state and local governments can distribute rental money to people in need. Even if Congress provides emergency rental assistance, but doesn’t extend the CDC moratorium, then millions of people will still lose their homes.

Q: You mentioned minorities are particularly affected by evictions. How about particular states or income groups? Rural vs urban renters? Learn More