U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) returns to the U.S. Capitol from a meeting at the White House Jan. 9, 2019 | Alex Wong, Getty Images
As America speeds toward the Nov. 3 election, millions of parents and kids across the country are waiting on a split Congress to nail down another round of coronavirus relief funding for everything from schools to food and nutrition assistance programs.
“Every single agency nonprofit I’ve talked to that deals with hunger issues says that there is a great increase in the need for food assistance [during the pandemic],” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) told the Advance in an interview last week.
So far, stimulus talks have produced few concrete results. Senate Republicans sought this week to pass a pared-down $500 billion aid bill, but the move was blocked by Democrats.
The House on Oct. 1 passed an updated HEROES Act — a $2.2 trillion package that allocates $10 billion to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and $400 million to the specialized food assistance program Women, Infants and Children (WIC) — but the GOP Senate opposed it.
Several parents who use nutrition assistance, especially mothers, have spoken about how WIC restrictions could be revised during the pandemic. In Michigan, WIC benefits cannot be used to purchase food online. A number of WIC card holders have said their families’ safety is compromised when they shop in-person.
In May, Levin co-led a letter that asked the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to allow WIC transactions to go contactless instead of being made in the presence of a cashier. Levin in August also co-introduced a bill that would establish a task force to modernize WIC.
Levin said the programs need additional dollars in order to address the COVID-19 crisis. There is “so much pain out there” caused by a gap in aid, he said.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are “just about there” on a partial agreement to allocate money for testing and contact tracing to reopen schools and businesses. What kind of funding these relief talks include for nutrition assistance programs remains to be seen.
Either way, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated he’ll delay a comprehensive relief package until after Election Day. McConnell has been preoccupied: the Senate Judiciary Committee is working to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s pick to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat that was left vacant upon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September.
Levin, who spoke on Wednesday with the Advance about his pushes to adapt WIC for the COVID-19 pandemic, called McConnell’s priorities “completely ass-backwards.”
The Michigan lawmaker believes Pelosi and Mnuchin could, realistically, come to agree on what the next relief bill should include. All parties are at the table to reach a solution, Levin said — except McConnell and Senate Republicans.
“But really, it is Mitch McConnell standing there saying that, ‘Oh, this could complicate my timeline for getting my right-wing justice on the Supreme Court,’” Levin said.
“It’s really unfortunate,” he added. “If it doesn’t happen, it’s all on him.”
When asked what he tells constituents who are wary of Congress’ ability to finalize aid, Levin said there is hope to be found in the upcoming election.
“I am incredibly hopeful that what the 2020 election will mean is not just the usual sort of bouncing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, but something that occurs quite infrequently in our country — namely, a fundamental change in direction,” Levin said.
In Michigan, extra monthly SNAP benefits for about 350,000 families have been extended through the end of October.
A federal judge on last week also vacated a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule that would have curbed the number of Americans obtaining SNAP benefits.
The Trump administration sought to add new stipulations that able-bodied adults without children work at least 20 hours a week if they were planning to use SNAP benefits beyond three months.
Michigan was part of a multi-state coalition that challenged the rule. The coalition successfully argued that the rule change violated the federal rulemaking process, contradicted law and Congress’s intent for SNAP, and lacked a sound rationale, making it arbitrary and capricious.
“SNAP was specifically created to help Americans struggling with food insecurity and as we continue to navigate this pandemic, this assistance is more important than ever,” said Attorney General Dana Nessel. “Instead of helping Americans at a time when so many are facing hardships, the Trump administration chose to cruelly revoke vital food assistance that thousands of Michigan residents rely on. This is an important victory in favor of human decency.”
More information about WIC — including a mobile app, lists of allowed food choices and instructions on how to apply for benefits — can be found at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) website.
Levin is up for re-election on Nov. 3. He’s running against Republican nominee Charles Langworthy, a Navy veteran who’s now a real estate agent for Liberty Way Realty in Lake Orion.
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