Guest Columnist

Iowa needs $1 billion in pandemic relief

Many businesses in Mt. Pleasant have shut their doors to the public as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic have mount
Many businesses in Mt. Pleasant have shut their doors to the public as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic have mounted. Some businesses continue to see workers come into the office. (Southeast Iowa Union)

The condition of everyday Iowans is the most precarious it has been in generations, the result of long-standing economic, environmental, and societal problems accelerated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and made worse by a state and federal government that prioritizes corporate profits over essential workers, immigrants, the sick, and the elderly.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and President Donald Trump’s false dichotomy of either saving the economy or saving vulnerable lives is a lie that protects giant corporations at the expense of working-class families and the environment. Consumers’ fear of the virus and their subsequent change in purchasing behavior has negatively impacted the economy more than public health orders and closures. Most measures at the state and federal level have lacked the economic and social support necessary to minimize unintended economic consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more Iowans being hospitalized and dying in 2020 than ever before. Even with the vaccine, we’re unlikely to see the end of the pandemic in 2021. In the meantime, working families in Iowa will continue to suffer as if the 1918 Flu Pandemic, Great Depression, and Farm Crisis were all happening at the same time.

Today, a staggering number of Iowa workers are living paycheck to paycheck, with many making only $10-12/hour and trying to survive on poverty wages. More than half a million Iowans filed for unemployment last year, surpassing the 2009 Great Recession multiple times over. More than 100,000 have stopped looking for work completely. One in five Iowa families have little or no confidence they will be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment on time. Twenty percent feel depressed or hopeless. Fourteen percent sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. Three hundred thousand Iowa families and 100,000 Iowa children struggle with hunger.

Black and Hispanic workers, the elderly, people with disabilities, meatpacking plant workers, teachers and nurses, public employees, restaurant and grocery store employees, small business owners and the self-employed, county and state prisoners, immigrants, women and children, the poor, and the homeless have all endured a disproportionate impact from the pandemic.

To add insult to injury, the derecho disaster damaged or destroyed thousands of Iowa homes, farms, and businesses, leading to forced relocation, broken families, exacerbated health problems, and unemployment. Small and mid-sized farms sustained damage and lost access to markets without price parity to help make up for the lost income. Federal assistance was like a kick in the gut for all but the largest farms.

These long-standing factors were further compounded by policy decisions at the state and federal level that prioritized corporate greed over human need.

In Iowa, Reynolds’s Invest In Corporate Profits approach to the pandemic included:

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Shielding giant grocers, meatpackers, and other corporations from liability at the expense of factory workers, consumers, and retirees living in elderly-care homes.

Ending the public reporting of workplace outbreaks.

The repeated and systematic lack of transparency in reporting COVID-19 data.

Repeated misuse of CARES Act money for her own personal projects and political paybacks, including:

Covering budget gaps in her office for personal staff and giving enormous raises to certain staff, like the state health directors who helped the governor’s public relations spin.

Giving the Iowa State Patrol a raise for repressing the Black Liberation Movement but demanding other public employees accept a two-year wage freeze.

Taking away school districts’ local control and decision-making authority about when to go virtually online without a state waiver.

Refusing to enact comprehensive mask mandates and public health restrictions, picking and choosing economic winners and losers.

Prioritizing more needless tax cuts for big businesses instead of investing in workers and families.

We need $1 billion inn pandemic relief for everyday Iowans.

The $900 billion federal stimulus bill signed into law on Dec. 27 will include some money for testing, contact tracing, vaccinations and treatment. It also will extend eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through Jan. 31, enhanced unemployment benefits for 11 more weeks, and give one-time $600 checks to most people.

But the federal relief does not include direct aid to state governments, something Reynolds personally lobbied for in the bill.

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Instead of ending so-called “backfill payments” to local and county governments, as state GOP leaders have proposed (payments Reynolds helped create when the Branstad/Reynolds administration cut corporate property taxes), Reynolds should make out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of state taxes and use half of Iowa’s $1.2 billion rainy day fund for pandemic relief that puts people and the planet first.

A $1 billion pandemic relief fund would guarantee:

Free COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination by expanding Medicaid to all Iowans for the duration of the pandemic.

Increased funding for public schools and universities to upgrade capacity for online, hybrid, and in-person learning, especially for the most vulnerable students who have been left behind.

A minimum-wage increase to $15/hour, hazard pay for essential workers, guaranteed paid sick leave, and the right to form a union.

Increases in food and child care assistance.

Reimbursing the unemployed for the gap in lapsed unemployment insurance benefits; and the extension of enhanced UI for the duration of the pandemic.

An extension on the eviction and foreclosure moratorium through the end of 2021, with a rent and mortgage assistance fund for tenants, homeowners, and small businesses.

A moratorium on new factory farm construction and a fully funded clean water plan.

Large-scale affordable housing, transportation, and infrastructure initiatives that put people back to work and transition the state away from a carbon emissions economy.

State-based stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants ineligible for federal stimulus checks.

Price parity for farmers and agrarian reform with a preferential option for Black farmers, Indigenous Iowans, immigrants and refugees.

A statewide ban on pretextual stops, cash bail, and no-knock warrants by the police.

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An end to law enforcement cooperation and information-sharing with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Closing corporate tax loopholes and ending corporate tax breaks and subsidies would generate at least $500 million a year in new annual revenue. This economic stimulus, combined with raising the minimum wage and spending an additional $500 million in one-time rainy day fund money would increase economic output and state revenue even more in subsequent years. Legalizing cannabis could also raise an additional $100 million a year for schools, health care, and rural development. To be just, legalization must include pardons for prior convictions and give impacted communities the first chance at ownership and job creation in the newly legalized industry.

The condition of everyday Iowans is precarious after decades of disinvestment, deregulation, multiple economic crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic. A massive reinvestment in working-class families and the environment is necessary to transform the future of our state into a new “Century of the Common Iowan,” where the prosperity of society is shared more broadly with everybody, starting from the bottom-up.

Stacey Walker is a Linn County Supervisor and Cathy Glasson is president of SEIU Local 199. The are members of Iowa CCI Action.

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