$2 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package Will Support Social Workers, Clients They Serve

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) commends Congress and the White House for passing into law the $2.2 trillion economic relief package that will provide aid to individuals, families and communities.

“Our nation is experiencing unprecedented levels of psychological and economic devastation as a result of this public health crisis” said NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW. “We applaud lawmakers and the Trump Administration for working quickly in a bipartisan way to bring relief to working class and middle-class Americans, many of whom are struggling to afford housing, food and health care during this pandemic.”

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the third COVID-19 relief package that Congress has enacted in as many weeks, includes extended and increased unemployment insurance, coronavirus testing at no cost to patients (including people who are uninsured), and a $1,200 rebate for all U.S. residents with an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 ($150,000 if married). It also contains a number of other provisions that will go a long way towards helping people as they cope with this crisis. This includes:

Economic Security

  • $1 billion for the Community Services Block Grant to help communities address the consequences of increased unemployment and economic disruption.

Mental Health

  • Extending the Medicaid Community Mental Health Services demonstration that provides coordinated care to patients with mental health and substance use disorders, through November 30, 2020.
  • Providing $425 million for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to increase access to mental health services in communities, provide suicide prevention services and care for people who are homeless. The bill also includes $45 million to respond to family and domestic violence, including providing services or shelter.

Food Security

  • Waiving nutrition requirements for Older Americans Act (OAA) meal programs to ensure older adults can get meals in case certain food options are not available.
  • Increasing the budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $15.5 billion, and $8.8 billion in additional funding for Child Nutrition Programs in order to ensure children receive meals while school is not in session.
  • Providing $200 million for food assistance to Puerto Rico and the territories to ensure these citizens receive more support during the pandemic.

Child Care and Development

  • $3.5 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant. This funding will allow childcare programs to maintain critical operations and ensure first responders and health care workers can access childcare during the pandemic.
  •  $750 million for Head Start to meet emergency staffing needs.

Housing

  • Providing $3 billion in rental assistance protections for low-income Americans.
  • Including $900 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds to help lower income households heat and cool their homes.

Despite being the largest stimulus package in the nation’s history, more relief will be needed due to the scope and severity of the pandemic. The legislation comes amid record-breaking unemployment claims. While there are funds in the bill for unemployment insurance coverage, that benefit is time-limited and does not cover workers’ full salaries. Further, low-income and other marginalized communities will disproportionately experience the impact of this public health crisis.

In terms of food security, despite the increase in the SNAP budget, the package does not include a 15 percent increase in the SNAP maximum benefit.  Also, COVID-19 prevention and intervention services among vulnerable populations such as those in prisons, jail, juvenile detention and immigration detention and people who are homeless was also only partially funded.

We are also disappointed that only 20 percent ($400 million) of the $2 billion needed to ensure an inclusive and fair voting process for primary and general elections was provided and allows discretion by states. NASW along with 200 organizations called for full funding of this effort in order to remove all barriers to maximum participation in the 2020 election for communities of color and marginalized communities.

Despite these gaps, which NASW will be working to address in anticipated subsequent COVI-19 relief packages, the legislation does include provisions that are helpful to social workers. Employers may provide a student loan repayment benefit to employees on a tax-free basis. An employer may contribute up to $5,250 annually toward an employee’s student loans, and such payment would be excluded from the employee’s taxable income. Also, the Secretary of Education is authorized to postpone student loan payments, principal and interest for six months, through Sept. 30, 2020, without penalty to the borrower for all federally owned loans.

The package will also facilitate even greater regulatory flexibility in telehealth than has already been implemented through prior COVID-19 policy actions. The bill gives the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) authority to waive requirements so that enrolled providers, including clinical social workers, can provide telehealth services using audio-only devices (such as telephone landlines). Under recent CMS guidance, clinical social workers and other eligible providers can, during this public health emergency, use smartphones with video chat apps such as Skype and Apple Facetime to provide services. They can also continue to use HIPAA-compliant video conferencing platforms, which was permissible prior to the pandemic. NASW will continue its advocacy to ensure that audio-only access is permitted by Medicare, which is already allowed in a number of states.

“This economic stimulus plan is an important step in helping our nation cope with this crisis,” McClain said. “We are also glad it will give social workers some of the supports that they need, such as greater flexibility to practice telehealth as they continue doing the hard work of ensuring clients access to services, including health care and mental health care they need as our nation contends with this pandemic.”

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

No Hungry Kids: Congresswoman Lee & 110 Members Call on Congress to Have a Conscience

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Earlier this week, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, along with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D-CA)  led a letter, signed by 111 Members of Congress, raising serious concerns about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. The letter also urges House leaders to protect critical food assistance programs.

“Once again, Congressional Republicans are balancing the budget on the backs of poor children, to the detriment of their health and well-being,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “Ensuring children have access to healthy and filling meals should be a top priority for every Member of Congress. With more than one in five American children living in poverty, we should be expanding opportunity to poor kids – not taking it away. I hope House Republicans will remember the struggling families in their districts and help us strengthen vital child nutrition programs.”

The letter identified many concerns that House Democrats have with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, including the draconian cuts to the Community Eligibility Provision and the Summer EBT Program. Under the proposed legislation, many low-income students would no longer receive free school meals. In fact, 19 of 23 schools in California’s 13th district that participate in the Community Eligibility Provision would lose federal resources.

Additionally, the letter detailed concerns about the updated nutrition standards, which would erode recent successes in expanding access to healthy meals for low-income students.

“There are more than 46 million Americans living in poverty right now,” added Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “We owe struggling families a real plan to end the cycle of poverty in America. Instead of actively working to undermine child nutrition and safety net programs, I hope my Republican colleagues will join us in empowering families and children living on the edge.”

Urban Planning Solutions for Food Deserts

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Grocery options are limited on the far South Side. (Image: Zol87 CC by/nc)

What is a ‘Food Desert’?

A generally accepted definition of a food desert is: an area where low-income people have restricted access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious food within a convenient traveling distance. When I think of food deserts, I also jump to include areas where culturally diverse foods are not available for those who would eat them. If there’s a large Chinese migrant population in a city and there are no Asian supermarkets- that seems to be a problem.

Areas that have restricted access to healthy food tend to have a higher change of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other malnutrition-related diseases. Studies have also shown that children who eat a healthy diet have better performance in academic and social endeavors.

Opportunities for Change

This is an area of interesting debate. Many cities, Detroit for example, have rushed to small-scale urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to combat the ridiculous gaps in supermarket locations. Some claim that this is the best solution. Small scale, locally owned and operated, businesses may offer economical boosts outside of healthy living.

Others do not agree. Some recent studies have shown that Big Box stores like Walmart solve the food desert issue because people actually use those models of food distribution. It’s great to have a dozen farmer’s markets in the area, but if no one goes to them then the food still isn’t accessible.

Urban Planning Endeavors

The laws and principals that govern the way a city is constructed have a huge impact on where commercial and residential venues are located.

There are also often laws that govern the sale of alcohol and other non-desirable items within so many feet of schools and churches. These restrictions sometimes make it difficult to encourage or allow grocery stores to come into an area. A recent article on the city of Houston showed that simple changes in the city’s alcohol sale laws will allow for grocery stores to move in, while keeping bars and convenience stores out.

Transportation is a huge barrier to accessing healthy food. It’s built into the general understanding of what qualifies as a food desert. If you live 2 miles from the closest grocery store in a city that has poor public transportation and you have no other access to a vehicle- how are you going to get your food items home? Transportation infrastructure that supports people moving from densely populated, low-income areas to retail locations that offer healthy options have had success across the country. The CDC has a nice list of some examples.

Sometimes, local government does decide to step-in and offer incentives for retailers providing healthy foods to come into an area plagued by convenience stores and fast food chains. In LA, a measure was passed that placed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. It successfully led to the opening of a new grocery store in the area.

Revitalizing blighted lands (abandoned buildings and lots, etc.)- again in LA and in Michigan- has had some success in turning these locations into thriving community gardens.  A Michigan Farm Bill (2013) exempts cities with populations over 200,000 (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, etc.) from the previous restrictions on agriculture in city limits. This now legalizes the 355+ community gardens and farmer’s markets in Detroit alone and allows for regulations regarding noise complaints and other farm-related things.

Many cities across the country have taken some steps to improve food security in their most needy communities. To locate food deserts in your area, check out this map from the US government.

Keep in mind- this map may consider convenience stores as ‘grocery retailers’ and might not wholly reflect the need of the area.

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