By Emily Cleeth
Shortly after Gov. Wolf gave the order to close nonessential businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in PA, it was estimated that nearly half of the 1.3 million workers in the Pittsburgh region would be directly impacted. Since then, record numbers of people have lost income and needed help with food, medical care, and supporting themselves and their families. This will remain true for as long as this crisis continues and well into the economic “recovery.”
Just Harvest’s mission is more critical than ever: ensuring public assistance programs are accessible and supportive to the people who need them, and that government policy adequately responds to hunger and hardship. Low-income households have been devastated by both the pandemic and its economic impact. People of color comprise a hugely disproportionate share of these households under the burden of systemic racism.
In response to the current crisis and the longstanding inequities it has laid bare, Just Harvest is doubling down on our efforts to individually help those in need while addressing the systemic root causes of their distress. Our staff started working remotely when Gov. Wolf ordered business closures, but we immediately ramped up our direct assistance work on SNAP/food stamps, Medicaid, and TANF/cash assistance applications as well as case advocacy and eligibility screenings. With unemployment soaring, the calls we’ve been receiving for help accessing these programs have increased significantly. We’re helping more people – families, seniors, people with disabilities, and displaced workers –access public benefits than we’ve helped in years. While millions wait for unemployment compensation, we are also working to raise awareness about other cash assistance programs, like TANF Diversion, that can help households with children. And we’ve provided people with the info they need, and phone assistance where possible, to file their taxes by the new July 15 deadline so they can maximize their tax refund and their stimulus payment.
Meanwhile, we are working in numerous coalitions to advocate for public policies that prioritize the well-being of those hit hardest by this pandemic. After years of disinvestment, elected officials are now trying to weave the shredded tatters of public assistance programs into an adequate safety net for tens of millions of people. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing too many people fall through. So we’re advocating to change rules that would increase access to public assistance programs but also improve the way they’re operating, while promoting the broader government policies and investments that will protect people in the future. This means calling on Congress to increase SNAP benefits for all eligible households to help put food on people’s tables and dollars into the economy. It also means demanding they remove SNAP’s unnecessary administrative barriers and work requirements for all populations going hungry – be they the unhoused, college students, or gig workers. (And then working with fellow advocates to do the same for key medical, housing, and cash assistance programs.)
The more than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps must be able to use them safely. So we have been working to address the severe lack of online and mobile food purchasing options for SNAP benefit cards. Federal SNAP policy and funding, state administration, retailer and farmers market capacity, internet access, and technology all must be addressed to protect those shoppers from unnecessary exposure to the virus.
Similarly, a moratorium on evictions won’t stop the rent eventually being due. Paid sick days aren’t helpful if it will be months before you can take one, and at a non-living wage. And it’s immoral to deem some workers “essential” but not give them the essential protections that will allow them to survive. Too many government officials view these as complex problems that require multiple layers of solutions so that capitalism isn’t halted by human needs.
But the overarching problem is simple. Due to decades of growing wealth inequality and stagnant wages, nearly half of our population wasn’t prepared for a common emergency, much less a historic disaster. Worse, leaders in the White House, Congress, and Pennsylvania’s General Assembly are still inclined to put corporate profits before the public interest in their response. They continue to push aside the most vulnerable people, delivering the bulk of government relief assistance to those who need it least.
Prior to the pandemic, government policy didn’t prevent or end destitution, much less ensure adequate nutrition and a decent standard of living for all. Now, far more aggressive measures are needed at the federal, state, and local level to protect those who were already struggling before the virus hit, and the ones newly plunged into hardship. We’ve been supporting dozens of such measures put forward through efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign, the People’s Bailout, We the People PA, and the Pittsburgh Workers Organizing Table.
We hope this disaster is also an opportunity — for us all to see much more of what we have in common than what divides us. In doing so, we can together forge new systems and rules, grounded in our shared values, to make this commonwealth and our nation what we all deserve them to be.
To get help or get involved, go to www. justharvest.org/covid-19.
Emily Cleeth is the Communications Coordinator for Just Harvest.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.