WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden launched another front in his battle against COVID-19 on Friday by taking steps to increase food assistance for families still reeling from the effects of the deadly pandemic and laying the groundwork for a $15 minimum wage for federal workers.
Biden signed executive orders giving low-income families easier access to federal nutrition and food assistance programs and taking action to get stimulus checks into the hands of Americans who still haven’t received them yet.
“We cannot – will not – let people go hungry,” Biden said during an event in the White House State Dining Room.
“We’re in a national emergency,” he said. “We need to act like we’re in a national emergency.”
Biden, who is just three days into his presidency, already has called on Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that would include another round of stimulus payments of up to $1,400 to millions of Americans.
But it’s unclear how quickly lawmakers will act on that package. The president’s executive actions aren’t intended to be a substitute for comprehensive legislation but will guarantee that relief can be delivered quickly to Americans who need it most, the administration said.
“These actions are concrete and will provide immediate support to hard-hit families,” said Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council. But, “they are not enough. Much, much more is needed.”
Deese is slated to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers Sunday as the Biden administration tries to sell its COVID-19 relief plan. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., confirmed they were among the group of lawmakers invited to the weekend meeting.
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The first of Biden’s executive actions is designed to marshal the forces of the entire federal government to provide emergency economic relief to working families, small businesses and communities.
It calls for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider expanding and extending federal nutrition assistance programs.
Specifically, the order asks the department to consider increasing the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or P-EBT, by 15% and making it easier for households to claim those benefits.
First authorized in March as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, P-EBT is a new anti-hunger program intended to replace the school meals that low-income children would otherwise get at school but can no longer access because they are forced to learn remotely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
To date, the program has allowed benefit amounts up to $5.70 per child per school day. Raising the benefit by 15% would more accurately reflect the cost of missing meals and would make it easier for families to claim the benefits. The revision would provide a family with three children more than $100 of additional support every two months, the administration says.
Biden’s order also calls for boosting the emergency allotments provided to low-income families under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Last year, Congress authorized emergency increases to SNAP benefits to help address the issue of food insecurity during the pandemic. But Deese said as many as 12 million low-income families did not get the emergency allotment because of how former President Donald Trump’s administration administered the program.
Under Trump, 40% of eligible families already receiving maximum SNAP benefits were deemed ineligible for the emergency allotment. Under Biden’s order, those families would be eligible for an emergency SNAP allotment equal to their maximum benefit. For a family of four, that could boost their snap benefits by 15% to 20% per month.
Biden’s order also calls on the Agriculture Department to revise its “Thrifty Food Plan,” which is the basis for determining SNAP benefits, to better reflect the true cost of a healthy diet. More than 40 million Americans receive SNAP benefits to help them put food on the table, but critics say the benefits fall short of what it costs many households to provide a healthy diet.
Some 8 million American households still haven’t received the stimulus checks that Congress authorized last year to help juice the economy in the face of the pandemic. Most of those who haven’t gotten the stimulus checks don’t earn enough money to pay federal income taxes, which made it difficult for the Internal Revenue Service to get the stimulus money to them.
Biden’s order asks the Treasury Department to take a series of steps to improve delivery of the stimulus checks, including establishing online tools to help get the money to those who still haven’t received it.
In addition, the order clarifies that Americans have a right to refuse employment that would jeopardize their health. Administration officials said the provision would provide needed protections to workers who fear their jobs would put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. Those who refuse such work are eligible for unemployment benefits.
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Biden’s second executive order takes more than a dozen actions impacting federal employees and contractors.
Biden will direct his administration to start the work that would allow him to issue an order in his first 100 days requiring federal contractors to pay their workers a $15 minimum wage and give them emergency paid leave. Agencies will be tasked with reviewing which federal employees earn less than $15 an hour and developing recommendations for boosting their pay.
As a candidate, Biden called for a number of worker protections, including a $15 minimum wage and giving workers more freedom to participate in collective bargaining.
His order revokes three executive orders signed by Trump that, among other things, limited federal workers time for collective bargaining and restricted union representatives’ access to office space and materials.
Biden already has signed more than two dozen executive orders spanning a variety of subjects since he took office on Wednesday.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Reach him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
Contributing: Nicholas Wu
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden moves to give economic relief to families slammed by COVID