Letters From an American

The American Rescue Plan May Be the Most Crucial Legislation in Decades

Using government power to support ordinary Americans.

The American Rescue Plan May Be the Most Crucial Legislation in Decades

Photo by Picturepest / flickr CC 2.0)

March 6, 2021

Today, after almost 24 hours of debate, the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan, designed to help America rebuild after the scorched-earth devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote was 50 to 49, with all the Democrats voting yes and all the Republicans voting no. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) had to leave the vote to attend his father-in-law’s funeral (and, frankly, while I try not to editorialize here, more power to him for choosing his family at this moment), but would have voted no. That would have made Vice President Kamala Harris cast the deciding vote, but the bill was going to pass.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this measure both for the present moment and as a sign of the direction in which the Democrats in charge of the United States hope to take the nation.

The relief measure is designed to address the dislocations of a pandemic that has, so far, taken more than a half a million American lives and thrown more than 10 million of us out of work.

America currently has a population of about 331 million people. By the end of 2020, more than 83 million Americans were having trouble meeting bills or buying food, and by January 2021, 30 to 40 million Americans were at risk of eviction because they could not make their rent payments. This crisis hit women and people of color the hardest because they tend to work in face-to-face jobs, which did not translate to remote work, and because the loss of childcare drove women out of the workforce. Thirty-nine percent of low-income households saw job losses early in the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan addresses this crisis. It includes checks of $1400 for people who make less than $75,000, making up the difference between the $600 the last coronavirus relief measure provided and the $2000 the former president demanded. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The bill provides federal unemployment benefits of $300 a week until Labor Day to supplement state benefits. It provides $350 billion for state, local, and tribal governments, which will prevent further job cuts and enable services to continue. It provides $130 billion for schools, as well as support for rent payments and food. With its expansion of child tax credits, subsidies for childcare, expansion of food assistance, lowering of costs under the Affordable Care Act, and rental assistance, the American Rescue Plan could cut child poverty in half by the end of this year.

Its benefits should begin helping low-income and moderate-income people immediately, injecting money into the economy to help us recover from the economic effects of the pandemic, even as we are starting to get vaccinated to emerge from the pandemic itself.

The bill is a statement about the role of the government. Rather than trying to free individuals from the burdens of supporting an active government by cutting taxes and services—as Republicans since Reagan have advocated– this bill uses government power to support ordinary Americans. It is a return to the principles of the so-called liberal consensus that members of both parties embraced under the presidents from Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in 1933, to Jimmy Carter, who left the White House in 1981. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who told Americans in his Inaugural Address that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Since then, the focus of our lawmakers has been to cut government services, not build them.

And yet, those cuts have not created a more equal society in the United States; they have dramatically moved wealth upward. It is worth remembering that, while $1.9 trillion is an eye-popping sum of money, the 2017 Republican tax cut under former president Donald Trump cost at least $1.5 trillion and, if Congress makes the individual tax cuts permanent, will cost $2.3 trillion over the next ten years. (Unlike the individual tax cuts, the corporate tax cuts in the law do not expire.) The 2017 vote for yet another tax cut won no Democratic votes, just as this American Rescue Plan earned no Republican votes.

The change in the direction of government signaled by this bill could not be more dramatic.

The bill will now go back to the House, which will vote to accept the amendments. It will then to go to the Oval Office for President Biden’s signature.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.