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Biden signs orders to get checks and food aid to low-income Americans -- plus a federal pay raise

President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's response to the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, emphasizing the need for decisive action for bold growth of the economy.

Posted: Jan 22, 2021 3:19 PM


President Joe Biden signed two more executive orders on Friday -- one focused on expanding food assistance and delivering stimulus checks to very low-income Americans, and the other on raising the minimum wage to $15 for the federal workforce -- as he continues his swift efforts to overturn his predecessor's policies.

The measures build on the President's drive to aid struggling families with a $1.9 trillion relief plan that he outlined last week. The plan would send another $1,400 in additional stimulus checks, extend unemployment benefits and nutrition assistance and provide more help to renters and homeowners in need.

That more ambitious proposal would have to go through Congress, while the steps outlined in Friday's orders don't require legislation and can be put in place faster.

In remarks before he signed, the President listed many of the financial troubles facing Americans, including that 1 in 7 households -- more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino families -- say they don't have enough food to eat, 14 million Americans have fallen behind on their rent and 900,000 people filed for unemployment for the first time last week.

"This cannot be who we are as a country," he said. "These are not the values of our nation. We cannot, will not let people go hungry. We cannot let people get evicted because of nothing they did themselves. We cannot watch people lose their jobs. We have to act."

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese argued at a White House briefing earlier in the day that the right policy move is to continue expanding aid now, rather than waiting to see whether the $900 billion aid package that Congress passed last month is sufficient. Deese pointed to a Moody's Analytics analysis that found that Biden's relief plan would create 7.5 million jobs this year and return the country to full employment a year ahead of what is otherwise projected.

"The single most important thing economically right now is to take decisive action," Deese said during the briefing. He added that he is set to speak with senators on Sunday concerning Biden's broader $1.9 trillion relief proposal.

Tens of millions Americans continue to suffer financial hardship because of the havoc the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on the economy, which has shown signs of intensifying in recent months. The number of people filing for initial unemployment claims has increased recently, and the economy lost jobs in December for the first time since April.

Biden has pushed for quickly adding more relief on top of the much-delayed $900 billion congressional aid package, which included $600 stimulus checks and a $300 weekly boost to unemployment benefits, as well as an 11-week extension of two key pandemic jobless programs. The measure also increased food assistance and extended eviction protections.

Biden's latest executive order aims to boost food aid to low-income families and children and get the already-approved stimulus checks to Americans who don't routinely file taxes and aren't easily reached by the Treasury.

Still, while Biden's efforts will provide "a critical lifeline" to millions of Americans, Congress still needs to act on comprehensive relief, Deese said.

Biden has signed a raft of executive orders, actions and memorandums since being sworn in Wednesday, including immediate moves to help student loan borrowers and people facing eviction. On Thursday, he formalized steps to get the coronavirus pandemic under control.

He is expected to sign additional orders over the coming days, according to a calendar document sent to administration allies and viewed by CNN. His agenda next week includes steps to beef up requirements for the government to purchase goods and services from US companies, a push to eliminate private prisons, reestablishing the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, rescinding the so-called Mexico City policy blocking federal funding for nongovernmental organizations that provide abortion services, and changing border processing and refugee policies as well as establishing a family reunification task force.

Helping families in need

The first of Friday's executive orders calls for the Department of Agriculture to consider enhancing Pandemic-EBT benefits by 15%, which would give a family with three children more than $100 in additional support every two months. The program, part of the relief packages Congress passed last March, provides funds to low-income families whose children's schools have closed to replace the free or reduced-price meals they would have received.

Also, the order directs the department to consider allowing states to boost food stamp benefits for about 12 million Americans who did not benefit from an earlier increase in emergency allotments included in the congressional relief packages. The order would bump up benefits for a family of four by 15% to 20% per month.

Food insecurity has ballooned during the pandemic amid massive job losses. The relief bill lawmakers passed in December increases the maximum benefit of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are formally known, by 15% through June. Biden's relief measure would extend it through September.

Consumer advocates applauded Biden's measures.

"The most effective way to ensure families with children have enough to eat is by providing them with the resources to purchase the food they need," said Lisa Davis, senior vice president at Share Our Strength, which seeks to end hunger and poverty. "And, since these benefits are spent quickly at local grocery stores and markets, they also stimulate local economies."

And the President is asking the agency to look into revising its Thrifty Food Plan, which is the basis for determining food stamp benefits, to better reflect the current cost of a healthy basic diet. The calculation was established in the 1970s, and advocates say it makes unrealistic assumptions about food affordability and availability, as well as about the time families have to shop and prepare meals.

In addition, Biden is directing the Treasury Department to consider taking a series of actions to reach the estimated 8 million people who may miss out on their stimulus payments because they don't normally file taxes.

Most eligible adults received the money automatically. But very low-income people who don't normally file tax returns have to register with the Internal Revenue Service so it knows how to reach them. The agency created an online tool to make this process easier and has made efforts to partner with local groups that work with homeless populations. Still, experts have said the government could be more aggressive in these efforts.

And the executive order directs the Department of Labor to consider clarifying that unemployed Americans can refuse to take jobs they fear will jeopardize their health and still qualify for unemployment benefits.

This has become an issue during the pandemic because some out-of-work people have been afraid to accept jobs that they think will expose them to the virus. States have varied in how they have handled these situations, with Republican-led states voicing concerns that enhanced unemployment benefits are enticing people to avoid returning to work.

$15 wages as a federal baseline

Biden's second executive order is geared toward improving the jobs of federal workers and contractors, which was among the President's campaign commitments. It sets the stage for requiring contractors to pay a $15 hourly minimum wage and to provide emergency paid leave by the end of Biden's first 100 days. It also directs agencies to determine which federal workers are earning less than that minimum and develop recommendations to promote bringing them up to $15 an hour.

The President included a call to raise the national hourly minimum wage to $15 as part of the $1.9 trillion relief package he outlined last week before taking office. It is currently $7.25 an hour.

The order also revokes three executive orders signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018 that made it easier to terminate federal employees and weaken their labor unions. The measures have been the subject of litigation and arbitration.

Biden's action directs agencies to bargain over permissible, non-mandatory subjects in contract negotiations.

The order also eliminates the new Schedule F classification for certain federal civil service employees, which Trump created in October by executive order. Critics said Trump's move politicizes civil service and could lead to career officials being pushed out for political reasons.

Separately, Deese said Friday that the administration will be strengthening the government's outreach efforts so that every eligible small business owner has access to federal aid.

Too many of the smallest mom-and-pop shops, typically run by people don't have existing connections to a banking institution, missed out on getting a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program last year, he said.

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