Summer is here in Kentucky. Temperatures are rising, and the school year is wrapping up for kids, parents and teachers across the state.
For financially secure Kentuckians, the arrival of summer means new adventures, beach vacations and the possibility of a little time to unplug and unwind, relax and recharge.
But those opportunities are out of reach for Kentuckians who were already financially struggling before COVID-19 and who bore the brunt of the economic downturn since. Even before the pandemic hit, 16% of Kentuckians lived in poverty, including 22% of children and 24% of Black Kentuckians. More than a year into the pandemic, 32% of Kentuckians still report difficulties in affording essential household needs such as food, housing and medical costs.
For many Kentuckians, summer will bring more stress, not less, about how they’ll make ends meet.
Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is extending several types of assistance that will help ease Kentuckians’ struggles through the summer of 2021. These federal funds will not only provide direct help, but also continue to stimulate the Kentucky economy by bolstering consumer spending and sustaining sectors that the COVID economic downturn has hit the hardest.
Child care needs are front and center for nearly all Kentucky families when schools let out. The ARP provides child care assistance through expanded, broadly available tax credits and direct payments for Kentucky’s lowest-income families. The ARP will soon send Kentucky an estimated $294 million to provide direct assistance to families and $470 million in stabilization funds so we don’t lose even more child care centers. The ARP also extends paid leave for parents whose child care centers are still shuttered due to COVID-19.
Food insecurity always becomes an even more urgent concern in the summer months, as kids are unable to get meals at school and families’ food resources are stretched thinner. This year, however, Kentucky will receive $244 million in federal Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) funding to provide families with $375 per child in grocery money for the 10-week period between school years. The ARP also extends the temporary 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance through September. Roughly 70% of Kentucky kids will receive one or both of these forms of assistance this summer. Kentuckians will experience less hunger, and the food aid dollars will continue to catalyze local economies throughout the commonwealth.
Despite more people getting vaccinated and a recovering economy, as of March Kentucky still needed 104,000 more jobs to return to pre-recession employment rates. In this context, continued federal supplemental unemployment benefits are a lifeline to Kentucky families, providing income support for those who have either exhausted or don’t qualify for regular state unemployment benefits, as well as the extra $300 per week benefit. Together, these programs funnel tens of millions of dollars into Kentucky every week — which ripples throughout our economy. These programs are scheduled to continue through the beginning of September.
The pandemic has shown that government action to provide direct, immediate and sustained relief during hard times helps boost not only the well-being of individuals and families, but the broader economy, too. And since we know that millions of Kentuckians were struggling long before the onset of COVID-19 and will continue to face difficulties after the pandemic and the summer heat subside, we should continue the policy approaches that have been shown to work. Many improvements introduced by the American Rescue Plan should be made permanent, with the bulk of assistance directed to those that need it most.
To truly recover — not just from the pandemic but from the status quo that leaves so many without enough money at the end of every month — we need lasting policy changes. The American Families and Jobs plans proposed by the Biden Administration and now under consideration by Congress represent a historic opportunity to transform our economy into one that works for Kentucky workers and families through earned income, dependent care and child tax credits as well as nutrition assistance, affordable housing, health insurance subsidies and free higher education. The plans would strengthen our care infrastructure by providing paid family and medical leave and investing in child care, universal pre-school and in-home care for people with disabilities and the elderly.
If policies are enacted and maintained to make such critically needed investments in 2022 and beyond, then perhaps more Kentuckians can start looking forward to summer as a season of new possibilities instead of new worries. Stability in the summertime and year-round will be more within their reach, and families will finally catch a long-deserved break.
This column ran in the State Journal on May 25, 2021.