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Md. lawmakers fear safety net is fraying during pandemic

‘The biggest concern for me is how the prior legislation has gone with our police departments,’ says Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, shown in 2018. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

The economic damage from the pandemic is falling particularly hard on undocumented immigrants, says Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s, shown in 2018. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

A panel of Maryland lawmakers is calling for a renewed focus on working poor and finding ways of preventing the sudden loss of social services benefits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently in Maryland one in three households cannot afford basic expenses such as food, housing, health care and transportation, according to a recent report from the United Way. Those families are dependent on social safety nets to make up the difference, including housing vouchers, energy assistance, and earned income tax credits.

And an already frayed social safety net system is likely to be further strained by the economic impacts of the ongoing pandemic.

“With the COVID-19 health crisis, this work group’s study of poverty and economic instability of working families, Maryland has had a greater sense of urgency and a greater imperative for us to find meaningful policy solutions to address these issues,” said Del. Pam Queen, D-Montgomery and co-chair of the House House Study Group on Economic Instability.

The work group, created in 2019 under then-House Speaker Michael Busch and re-appointed by his successor, Speaker Adrienne Jones, sponsored two bills last year, including legislation to continue a work group on generational poverty, which passed, and another to create income tax credits for eligible costs related to employer-provided child care. That bill died in a pandemic-shortened session.

Del. Mike McKay, R-Washington and Allegany and co-chair of the work group, warned that lawmakers will face additional time constraints in 2021 because of the pandemic.

“The session coming up, because it’s going to be different, we’re going to have a lot of time constraints,” said McKay. “So whether it’s not doing duplication or it’s actually meeting with state agencies … not getting their blessing that it’s OK to run with this piece of legislation but really flesh out a lot of the conversation that normally would be done during a 90-day session.”

Of concern are the ways in which the social services system that helps working poor families can be suddenly pulled away when recipients receive raises that make them ineligible for benefits but don’t cover their basic expenses.

“Some are impacted more than others,” said Queen. “Some are impacted a little less but there is some impact in terms of a loss of security net programs and public benefits.”

The United Way report recommended a gradual phase-out of those benefits, including federal supplemental food benefits and temporary assistance and those related to housing, child and health care and employment. The report also recommended indexing the state’s minimum wage, which will eventually be increased to $15 per hour, to the cost of living.

The ongoing pandemic has served to increase the strain on these services, including a rise in food and housing insecurity.

The ongoing pandemic also raised concerns about how it affects undocumented immigrants as well as low-income families who lack access to the internet at a time when connectivity is needed to participate in school.

“In our usual state of affairs, undocumented folks don’t have access to unemployment,” said Del. Wanika Fisher, D-Prince George’s. “I think during a state of emergency like the pandemic, I think our state needs to reconsider that.”

“We can get into a lot of back and forth about documented, undocumented whatever, but the reality is people are paying into our taxes through multiple ways and the reality is these children are part of our school systems and are mouths to be fed and we are in a global pandemic. Limiting the help in that way, especially in this very unique circumstance, I find very heart-wrenching,” she said.

Added to housing and food concerns is a lack of connectivity to the internet that prevents some from participating in school, according to Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore city.

Some internet providers are offering packages meant to help, but Lierman said those often fail “or don’t run at high enough speed” to allow multiple children to take classes at home.

Lierman called on the group to come up with solutions to make sure low-income families are “reliably connected to the internet. Doesn’t just have access but is actually connected because I think there is a difference.”

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