Biden signs order to increase federal food benefits, among executive actions to stabilize the U.S. economy

President Biden speaks about the coronavirus pandemic before signing executive orders at the White House on Jan. 21. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Friday Jan. 22, 2021, signed a significant increase in federal food assistance for millions of hungry families and other executive actions intended to stabilize the deterioration of the economy weighed down by the raging coronavirus pandemic.

At a ceremony signing at the White House, Biden touted his $1.9 trillion economic relief measure being debated in Congress, in particular highlighting the surprise support from former senior Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett. Congressional Republicans have criticized Biden’s plan as approving too much additional federal spending, while Biden insisted Congress needed to rapidly pass significantly more aid.

Biden then signed two executive orders, one including a bevy of measures designed to support the economy and another aimed at reinstating protections for the federal workforce.

“The bottom line is this: We’re in a national emergency. We need to act like we’re in a national emergency. So we have to move, with everything we’ve got,” Biden said. “Families are going hungry. People are at risk of being evicted. We need to act.”

Biden is asking the Department of Agriculture to allow states to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits – commonly known as food stamps – and to increase by 15% benefits awarded through a school meals program for low-income studentsstarted during the pandemic, according to Biden administration officials. That could give a family of three children more than $100 in extra benefits every two months, officials said.

A separate unilateral move aims to help get previously approved stimulus checks into the hands of Americans who haven’t received them yet. And another would ask the Labor Department to make clear that workers who refuse to return to working conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus should be eligible for unemployment insurance. Biden is also starting the process to issue an order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a $15 an hour minimum wage.

The U.S. economy has shown new signs of damage, particularly in the labor market. Last month, the economy lost jobs for the first time since the recovery began, and weekly jobless claims in January have remained at historic highs. Biden has inherited the worst jobs market of any president in modern history. Biden has warned total deaths from covid-19 will soon top 500,000, intensifying fears about the threats of new coronavirus strains to both public health and the economy.

“I want to be very clear: these actions are not a substitute for comprehensive legislative relief,” Deese said, “but they will provide a critical lifeline to millions of American families.”

Conservatives are expected to criticize Biden’s actions, and have generally called for a relaxation of public health restrictions. They’ve also warned against big spending that would increase deficits.

Stephen Moore, a conservative policy expert who served as an outside adviser to the White House, said the additional funding to increase food assistance is less important than addressing the economic damage caused by the lockdowns.

“The most important stimulus would be for Biden to get blue states to open their restaurants, businesses and schools,” Moore said. “If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how much money the Biden administration spends.”

Other conservative economists objected to the push to boost federal contractor wages to $15 an hour, arguing businesses reeling from the pandemic could be hurt by increasing pressure on wages.

“In general, on minimum wage, moving toward an expectation of $15 hour minimum wage could be dangerous while the economy is still in a precarious position,” said Brian Riedl, a former GOP staffer and policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

Biden’s order attempts in several ways to address the surge in hunger in America during the pandemic, with approximately 50 million people, including 17 million children, considered food insecure.

Previous coronavirus relief bills did not expand SNAP for the 40% of recipients who were already at the maximum benefit. Biden’s new order would allow states to increase SNAP emergency allotments for those who need it most, allowing an additional 12 million people to receive enhanced benefits.

Under Biden’s order, an electronic debit card benefit for students will increase by approximately 15%. The program is called Pandemic EBT and goes to students who would have qualified for free or reduced-priced school meals were school in session.

Perhaps the most significant change in this executive order is a reassessment of the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits. Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, said the metrics are out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face. The president will ask the USDA to consider beginning the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the modern cost of a healthy basic diet.

“Any one of these in itself would be terrific, but if you bundle them together, these are indeed quite significant in terms of helping Americans get through one of the most terrible times in our lives,” said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of Greater Boston Food Bank.

Biden will also restore collective bargaining power to federal workers and direct agencies to develop recommendations “directing his administration to start the work” of an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a $15 per hour minimum wage and provide emergency paid leave. Biden endorsed similar commitments during the presidential campaign.

In terms of stimulus payments, the White House says it will ask the Treasury Department to consider improving its disbursal, in part by “working to make sure those who have not yet accessed their funds get the relief they deserve.”

At a separate press briefing on Friday, Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters that the administration would pursue “a number of strategies” to find people have not received stimulus payments but are entitled to them. That would include setting up a new online portal through the Treasury Department for people to try finding their payments.

Deese added administration officials want to work through outside organizations to reach out to those who do not typically file income taxes who may not have received stimulus payments.

“We’re going to work both directly … and with partner organizations to make sure every American entitled to a benefit is actually entitled to it,” Deese said. “Starting today we’re going to start a process to make that a lot easier for families.”

Biden’s executive actions will also aim to buttress unemployment benefits as about 10 million remain out of work. Democrats in Congress had for months asked the Trump administration to make clear to states that workers who felt unsafe returning to work due to the coronavirus should not be denied jobless benefits. States had wildly different interpretations of the rules, leading thousands to be deprived of unemployment aid, said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.

“The federal government has a role to tell the states what they should do on this,” Stettner said. “This is significant.”

The executive actions also include a number of measures related to U.S. federal employees. President Donald Trump had issued an executive order in October that would have stripped civil service protections from federal employees whose work involves policymaking, allowing them to be dismissed with little cause or recourse, much like the political appointees who come and go with each administration.

Civil service experts and union leaders estimated that from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of federal employees in a workforce of 2.1 million would have been swept into the new class of employees, called Schedule F. Biden will reverse that decision.

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