Are we doing enough?

Most of us in the legislature are committed to making sure that no one in Massachusetts lacks food, shelter, or health care.  And we are doing a lot to fill possible gaps in the safety net.  But it is hard to know whether we are doing enough to support those who have lost income due to the COVID-19 recession. 

We know that a lot of people are out of work.   And we know that the federal government has so far kept many afloat through extended unemployment benefits.   

We don’t know how many are falling through the safety net.  The restaurant and hospitality businesses that have been hit hardest are characterized by low wages and sometimes pay employees off the books or without documentation.  Those employees cannot collect unemployment insurance. 

The situation is moving too fast for reliable surveys and those working off the books or without documentation are not on the economic radar.  Some have attempted economic modeling of income replacement needs, but these models involve a lot of guess work and are highly uncertain. 

The only real information we have comes from our secondary safety net — the food and shelter programs that support those who cannot make ends meet.

Case load increases in these programs demonstrate a huge expansion in need.  For example, the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership estimates a tripling in the number of families served by the RAFT program in greater Boston.  The RAFT program provides rental assistance for families in transition.   

The expansion of need is concentrated in the immigrant neighborhoods where people are most likely to be working in low wage hospitality jobs, often without documentation and without access to unemployment insurance.  In East Boston, the case load is on track to rise by 20-fold from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021. It is already up by a factor of ten comparing only the first six months of fiscal 2021 to the full 12 months of fiscal 2020. Chelsea is on track to rise 10-fold, Everett 5-fold.   

As dramatic as these increases are, they understate the need. Some people are unaware of available benefits.  Some are uncomfortable with applying for benefits.  Some are unable to apply due to cognitive or language barriers. 

The legislature has dramatically increased RAFT funding and is committed to providing supplemental funding to meet emerging demand.  In addition, we have attempted to make sure that all eligible persons are able to apply.  We have required that landlords seeking evictions for non-payment provide notice of available assistance and that courts delay eviction proceedings to allow tenants to apply for assistance. We have provided increased funding for the service organizations that process assistance applications to keep the backlog in applications down.  The courts themselves, working with the Baker Administration, have created an Eviction Diversion Initiative.

The rate of new filings for eviction offers a metric of the adequacy of our assistance.  So far, we have not seen an explosion in attempted evictions.  We imposed a complete but temporary moratorium on eviction filings when the epidemic hit but that moratorium expired in October.  There was a brief increase in new filings immediately after the expiration, but that increase has not been sustained.  In fact, new eviction filings in the first four weeks of 2021 were 23% below filings in the first four weeks of 2020. 

The lack of a surge in new eviction filings is encouraging on its face but there are multiple possible explanations.  Our expanded rental assistance programs may be making a big difference.  Landlords may be making compromises with tenants, knowing that the rental market is very soft.   Or, less encouraging, many tenants may just leave when threatened with eviction so that no actual eviction filing occurs. 

Results from the City of Boston’s census of homelessness should appear shortly.  But that survey will only identify the street homeless.  How many families are doubling up with friends or relatives creating ideal conditions for transmission of COVID?   

We have put a lot in place to help people and we are watching and listening carefully for signs of unmet need. 

Safety Net Expenditures in the FY2021 Budget

  • Housing
    • $180 million for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters;
    • $135 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP);
    • $50 million for Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT), as well as emergency changes to the RAFT program to increase the maximum amount of rental assistance that a household can receive from $4,000 to $10,000 and allow eligible households facing a housing crisis to access both RAFT and HomeBASE;
    • $80 million for public housing subsidies;
    • $56 million for homeless individual shelters;
    • $13 million for homeless student transportation;
    • $12.5 million for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), which provides rental assistance to people with disabilities;
    • $11 million for Department of Mental Health Rental Subsidy Program; and
    • $8 million for unaccompanied homeless youth.
  • Food
    • $30 million for the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program;
    • $13 million in Healthy Incentives Programs to ensure vulnerable households have continued access to food options during the pandemic; and
    • $1.2 million for Project Bread to support the Child Nutrition Outreach Program and the Food Source Hotline.
  • Child Care
    • $25 million for a new Early Education and Care Workforce and COVID-19 Supports Reserve
    • Rate increases for early education providers
    • New reserve to cover parent fees for families receiving subsidized childcare
    • $15 million for Head Start grants;
    • $10 million for EEC Workforce Higher Education Opportunities;
    • $2.5 million in early childhood mental health grants;
    • $11 million for child care resource and referral agencies; and
    • Establishes the Early Education and care Economic review commission to review childcare funding and make recommendations on policy changes to expand access.  

Source: Joint press release of the Speaker and the Senate President, December 4, 2020

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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30 Comments

  1. Will, Though this is a tangent from your main subject at hand, it is a core issue, unaddressed.
    We know that what *causes* transmission has little to do with masks, and everything to do with time/proximity/density of gathering indoors. Masks may mitigate risk, but the cause is gathering indoors.

    In response to this basic, physical and scientific premise, restrictions to indoor gatherings are invoked, mostly with regard to leisure industries, for lack of a better term; restaurants, bars, hotels(?), gyms. Many of these businesses are hurting badly as a result.

    Scenario: zero restriction to an industry that by definition places large quantities of people into close proximity for long periods of time; that would be the airlines. Our dear CDC uttered not a single word in advocacy for restrictions on airline capacity, particularly over the holidays. Then, post Nov and Dec travel, shocker!…deaths skyrocketed.
    Not a single voice, that I heard, said one peep, about this staring-us-in-the-face holiday scenario, say in September in anticipation of the holidays, which “paid off’ just as perfectly as every epidemiologist predicted.

    Do you have any explanation for this?

    (PLEASE do not invoke the use of face coverings on planes as a ‘safe’ travel practice, with packed planes; also, HEPA filtration, though very real in concept. They both fail in real world, critical applications including long flights as has been empirically shown in several real world instances)

    1. Well, first and foremost, there has been no national strategy, which is where it begins. In fact, there was obfuscation and outright denial coming from the top. The blame lays squarely at the feet of the Trump administration. Thankfully, we dodged a very large bullet by limiting them to one term. The Biden administration is off to a great start. That said, there is much more we could do at the state level. Having a progressive governor would help immensely. Until then, the legislature needs to be bold and rise to the level this crisis demands. Expend the rainy day funds and look towards revenue enhancement down the road.

      1. So there is no limit to what we can spend? Of course – “revenue enhancement” (what a lovely euphemism) will cure everything, right? But increased taxation = smaller disposable incomes = weaker economy (probably for decades). I’d rather that we stick with a fiscally responsible governor.

      2. First and furmost you all can make food more taxable so that folks get something back to help with their every day needs, Also you can collaborate with whole foods or some supermarket to donate the food they have before its outdated Fruits and vegetables or either the hospitals which I know have pantry maybe y’all can collaborate and have them deliver food to elders in the neighborhoods that no longer drive or have a car limit vaccination to residents only as you may know some already working on their second shot while others still have not received 1 yet and since your the legislator of this neighborhood you should of been in charge and you could of appointed Holy to organize since she lives in the neighbor hood this guy from the marathon who’s doing it has people coming in from outside if their not from this district them they should wait not come into my neighbor hood and I wait

        1. Duh, re: “First and furmost you all can make food more taxable so that folks get something back to help with their every day needs.” If you were to make food “more taxable,” then you would NOT be helping folks with their daily needs because they would have considerably more trouble paying for food!

  2. I can comment on the effect to shelters that provide services to homeless individuals. Federal funding did a pretty decent job of providing the resources we needed to isolate, quarantine and depopulate the shelters. Those resources, however will go away at some point. We do not want to go back to crowded shelters and must turn to a different model post-COVID.

    And for what it’s worth, the $3M increase the legislature appropriated through line item 7004-0102 to shelters for homeless individuals across the state was not passed along to those shelters. The administration took half of it and set up a new shelter in Malden and the other half was PAC’d to the Governor’s FY22 budget (and he claimed he increased funding to this line item). Obviously many shelters were counting on that funding and essentially now have some mid-year budget cutting that needs to be done.

    1. Hi Aimee, can you tell me more about the new Shelter in Malden? What org is operating it? Thanks!

  3. I think the current health crisis does warrant large charitable gifts from government. I am impressed by the efforts of the Massachusetts Legislature and at the same time I am humbled that the depth of current need may still not be fully met by these efforts. I am a big fan of FDR’s New Deal that was enacted during the Great Depression especially his promotion of public arts, which begs the question. How might we use the talents of those currently unemployed in ways that benefits society, gives greater meaning to those without work and fills the current gap between aide and need for aide?

  4. I am concerned that the relief checks sent by the Fed. government should go to the most needy, and it is not properly adjusted to that aim in the proposal as written in Washington.

  5. The answer to your question may be in the comment you made: “As dramatic as these increases are, they understate the need. Some people are unaware of available benefits. Some are uncomfortable with applying for benefits. Some are unable to apply due to cognitive or language barriers.”

    We don’t know if we’re doing enough if we don’t have a good handle on the problem. Perhaps more effort should be placed on … going into communities to assess the need and identify the gaps … communicating available programs through formal and informal community channels … eliminating barriers, also through community resources.

  6. I would hope that community groups, churches, food pantries, libraries, etc. can provide opportunities for state-paid volunteers to go around in communities and connect with people to make sure information gets around on a person-to-person level.

  7. Ask for reporting from frontline workers and organizations- food pantries, social services, shelters. And from school staff. And from police on incidents related to drug use and mental distress. ???

  8. I cannot understand why Republicans cannot support the Biden plan. Everyone knows there are more Republican Governors controlling States than Democrats and most of them would welcome the part of the plan that provides money to States. States must balance budgets, unlike the Feds. So monies going into Community support from States, both Republican & Democrat, supporting homeless, supporting schools, food needs, and the myriad needs of the citizens so support from the Feds would be welcome, unlike the arguments of Republicans in Congress. I do believe it will pass without Republicans, but WHY would Democrats in Congress seek their help when they are no longer trusted after putting support behind the efforts to overthrow the elected Government? Raising the Minimum wage is long overdue. $15.00 an hour is something I made about 10 years before I retired in an office setting. I cannot imagine today how people can live very richly with this wage. Work/Labor is a very sought-after commodity business, and wages should reflect fairly the worker’s expertise, time, efforts, etc. So no, businesses should not be solely thinking of their bottom line that generally lines the owner’s pockets. Republicans seem to want to mean test giving money back to people in times of need. They should pass the $1,400 to people so at least they can spend that money in the economy and produce additional jobs in the process. Finally, the National Debt is not something to debate in the middle of this health and economic crisis in every State in the Union. The government can easily borrow the money proposed, at near record-low interest rates. This should have been passed months ago. It needs to pass yesterday.

    1. You wrote: “Work/Labor is a very sought-after commodity business, and wages should reflect fairly the worker’s expertise, time, efforts, etc.”

      Absolutely. But the truth is that Biden’s administration does not care about it – and nor does the democratic party. They know very well that wages are subject to the law of supply and demand (hence the labor market), but they are doing everything they can to increase the supply of labor, via the spigot of immigration, at a time when jobs are scarce due to the pandemic, automation, and the continuing off-shoring of American jobs (very much in the interest of corporate elites that get filthy rich on Chinese imports).

      The only way wages can go up is if the supply of labor is tightened by reducing immigration. In the current conditions, with millions of people out of work, we should be bringing immigration down to a trickle. So what does president Biden do? He reverses Trump’s restrictions on immigration, and since then, on average 3,000 illegal immigrants are now entering this country every single day. Good luck to those who work full time (if they’re lucky), but can’t afford basic things like housing, starting a family, and generally paying their own way through life. But promises of government assistance sure make them all want to vote democratic. We are doomed.

      1. Studies show immigrants are a net benefit to the economy, because while they work jobs (like everyone else) they also buy stuff (which generates jobs) and the result more than of they never arrived. If we want a growing economy, we should be MORE welcoming to immigrants, in addition to the basic fact that they’re people just seeking to improve their lives

  9. The best defense against Covid is germ avoidance. One should always be concerned when you hear “I am from the government and I am here to help.” The government forced millions of people to go on unemployment, now they want 30% of it back by April 15, 2021. In line with what was done last year, the time for filing 1040 should be extended to July 15, 2021.
    Forcing people to pay interest and fines is unreasonable. Since this is not an election year, it’s easier for the Washington DC corrupt overpowering central government to give us the shaft.
    Remember our founding fathers warned us, government is not your friend. That is why we have 3 branches of government and many other safeguards.
    Russ Arico

  10. Your question is “Is there unmet need?” We have surveys which report the number of unhoused individuals, and they show that the shelters are largely filled, and that others are turned away. I manage the Green Street Shelter in Cambridge. Our women’s building still has vacancies, but the men’s side is full, and we turn away seekers. Our women guests are often traumatized by inappropriate men encounters and we cannot put men on the women’s side. I fear a surge in homelessness when eviction moratoria are lifted.
    With respect to food, Cambridge has a good food distribution program, and I believe most food needs are met. We have meal sites, both publicly and privately funded, food pantries,
    and meals served at shelters.

  11. The best thing we can do to get people on their feet is to fully open the economy. If people are concerned about picking up a virus they should stay home. It is very clear the causes of deaths are being manipulated as well as the number of “cases”. They are cultivating fear. The PCR test was never designed to detect virus. You can look up the inventor of the PCR test to validate this (Kary Mulis). There is a larger agenda here which is obvious….more control over people. We’re giving up freedoms and liberties that were fought for over centuries. What kind of world are we creating? A world where we are afraid to associate with other humans and cower in fear waiting for our next Amazon drone delivery. No thank you.

  12. “Some people are unaware of available benefits.”
    This is 2nd hand, but a co-worker told me he spoke to a young laid-off restaurant worker with a greencard who claimed she was refused UI (not just the covid19 related supplements but all of it) because she was not a citizen. I wonder what protections or dispute mechanisms are available for those who file and encounter state employees who either have political agendas or themselves are misinformed.

  13. I do not understand why previous state hospitals (like Fernald School) are not being turned into low income housing and training. In fact I see a great opportunity to set up training programs in construction by having the people who will benefit from low income housing to learn a trade while helping to renovate these structures or build new ones. This is the kind of thing that was done during the great depression and we should be looking at doing this now. We also do not want to give these properties to private entities (and I am sure people are dying to get their hands on them) These are large tracts of land that can be made useful again for serving the less fortunate in our communities

  14. Will – I don’t think that the question “Are we doing enough”? is the right way to put it. It’s never enough if we have policies that make the numbers of people who depend on public assistance grow and grow – and we do. Asking “Are we doing enough?” conveys that you care — so that accomplishes that goal — but the government has the duty to balance care with responsibility, and that includes making the public aware of the long-term consequences of making large segments of our population dependent on public assistance.

    There is no free lunch. People need to know how all those assistance programs are affecting the state’s finances. What does it mean for the future? The wealthy can move to no-income-tax states (and take certain jobs with them as well) – so it will be largely the middle class in Massachusetts that will be stuck with repaying any and all debts, or replenishing the rainy day funds – and their standard of living will be going down.

    Of course, we can’t let people go hungry, or be homeless, or be without healthcare – but since somebody always has to pay for it, we should be laser-focused on not creating conditions in which the number of people in need of public assistance keeps going up in our state. I don’t know if anybody on Beacon Hill is analyzing those things from that perspective.

  15. We’re not doing nearly enough. Granted, the federal government should have stepped in long ago, but absent a coherent national response, we should have shut down restaurants, bars, gyms, etc, and paid people enough for them to get by while they couldn’t work.
    We can still do it, and protect people from the new, more contagious strains of COVID.

  16. We certainly must due all that is necessary to see that no one goes hungry and no ones loses the roof over their heads. But the unemployment system is completely overwhelmed and is giving benefits fraudulently, and they admit they can’t even investigate the fraud it is so vast. A terrible waste of money, that could be going to more useful needs

  17. Lets look at the local and state level, My property tax consumes 31% of my pension income. My town spends like drunken sailors on the school system 75% of the levy is for the school system. I do not benefit from this spending but yet carry the burden. The legislature needs to review the entire tax picture (state AND local) across the board and the matching of the burden with the beneficiaries on all tax levies and expenditures, The only options are property tax deferral (read this is a loan). At best the system is a sour joke on seniors. and a cruel hoax perpetrated by the legislature.

  18. This is a good government first response for immediate necessary assistances. But like the fire trucks, after they put out the fire and get recalled to the station, then what? It is time for the politicians to revamp the rules of the economic system to level the playing field such as tax policy. Align the burdens with the beneficiaries.

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