With the November midterms looming, the federal government has stayed busy since passing the Inflation Reduction Act in August. While Congress has slowed down since then, the White House has steered disaster relief efforts across the country and has also promulgated notable regulations and rulings around student debt cancellation and immigration.
Just in the last month, Hurricane Ian struck Florida and Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico. And in Jackson, Mississippi, a man-made disaster arose with residents having no access to safe drinking water due to a failed water treatment plant. These crises have devastated communities and caused billions in damages, spurring federal relief efforts across a range of federal agencies, from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Small Businesses Administration (SBA). These disasters call attention to the continued need not only for robust disaster relief efforts, but also more proactive and expansive efforts to fight climate change and have strong local infrastructure.
Shifting gears, the most noteworthy executive order since the last round up has been the administration’s cancellation of student debt. Biden issued an executive order that in part canceled $10,000 of student debt for individuals making less than $125,000 and families making less than $250,000. While the targeted relief plans will come as a great relief for many, advocates continue to push the Biden administration to take even more steps to address the debt caused by the ballooning cost of higher education.
The Biden administration also reversed a Trump-era ‘public charge’ rule meant to erect barriers for immigrants, issuing a rule which will allow immigrants to access non-cash public benefits without detrimental effects on their immigration proceedings. This step ensures that local governments in particular can provide non-cash benefits (e.g. school lunches, housing benefits, food banks, shelters, COVID-related medical care, and many more) to immigrants without compromising their ability to receive permanent residency status or citizenship.
Below we have provided more detailed analysis and resources on the developments related to (1) immigration, (2) the administration’s Justice40 Initiative, (3) student debt cancellation, and (4) disaster relief.
In early 2020, the Trump administration released a “public charge” rule that meant immigrants could be denied permanent resident status if they had received or were likely to receive public assistance from local, state, or the federal government. The Trump’s administration’s definition of “public assistance” was purposefully capacious: it not only included Section 8 housing vouchers, SNAP, school lunches, and more, but even one’s family receiving public assistance could be detrimental.
While the Biden administration had stopped enforcing this rule in March of 2021, they had yet to issue a rule that concretely rolled back the Trump-era rule. This month the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did just that, issuing a rule that will go into effect in December. The new rule ensures that immigrants who receive or seek government benefits will not face detrimental consequences in their immigration proceedings for having done so. Now, “there are only two types of government programs that could contribute to a determination that the applicant might become a public charge:
- cash assistance for income maintenance (SSI, TANF, state or local General Assistance programs); and
- government funded long term institutional care (not short-term rehab or home- and community-based services).”
In terms of whether or not guaranteed income programs would count as “cash assistance for income maintenance,” DHS has said that they would not consider them “to the extent that ‘guaranteed income’ programs… do not provide the primary source of income for recipients, or are made available without income-based eligibility rules” (p. 55 of rule).
The Green New Deal Network, Evergreen Action, and United Frontline Table released a report assessing the “Justice40” opportunities from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Last year the Biden administration launched a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with a goal to deliver 40% of the benefits of federal climate change-related investments to disadvantaged communities. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be the first opportunity to implement the Justice40 Initiative.
Because much of the funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will flow to state and local governments, the report breaks down how state and local governments can leverage this legislation and the Justice40 initiative to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels whilst making strides for disadvantaged communities.
On August 24th, the Biden administration issued a targeted student loan relief plan. Here are the most notable elements of the order:
- The pause on student loan payments is extended till December 31, 2022
- $10,000 in debt will be canceled for individuals who earn less than $125,000 annually and families that have a combined income less than $250,000 can obtain $10,000 in student loan relief. These eligibility thresholds apply to 80% of federal student loan recipients. Pell Grant recipients will be eligible for an additional $20,000.
- 90% of the relief will go towards individuals earning less than $75,000 annually
- Debts for 20 million of the 43 million total borrowers (~47%) will be entirely canceled, according to White House estimates
- Recipients who opt for an income-driven repayment program will only have to pay up to 5% of their income, a decrease from 10%. Additionally, no interest would capitalize under IDR; as long as borrowers make their required payment, their loan balance will not grow.
- The administration also announced that it will take efforts to punish institutions that purposefully load up graduates with lots of debt and that it will create new reporting mechanisms to steer prospective students away from them.
Since the order was issued, there have been some developments that could mitigate or diminish its positive effects:
- The Biden administration updated their order to roll back the benefits for at least 800,000 borrowers, declaring that “borrowers with privately held federal student loans, such as through the FFEL, Perkins, and HEAL programs” can no longer consolidate their loans into federal loans in order to be eligible.
- States may tax the relief. While the student debt relief won’t be subject to federal income tax, in seven states borrowers may have to pay state income tax on all those canceled loans.
- The executive order is already being litigated, and more suits from libertarian and conservative groups are expected to follow.
Florida was struck with devastating force by Hurricane Ian, with over a hundred dead and close to $50 billion in estimated damages. Currently, the federal government is all hands on deck and working closely with state and local administrators to marshall a muscular disaster response. Additionally, the federal government promised to completely fund the critical immediate disaster relief efforts, including “to clear debris and for all the costs that the state has to…expend to save lives.”
Hurricane Ian’s devastation follows that of Hurricane Fiona, which struck Puerto Rico, causing billions in damages and at least 25 deaths. Many are still without power and water, even weeks after. Despite the billions in estimated damages, the White House has only pledged $60 million towards Puerto Rico’s relief efforts, reflecting Puerto Rico’s oft-neglected status.
Meanwhile, residents in Jackson, Mississippi suffered a public health crisis from the lack of running, drinkable water due to a failed water treatment plant. Some trace the failure of the water treatment plan to “a decision by a credit ratings agency four years ago that massively inflated the city’s borrowing costs for infrastructure improvements, most notably for its water and sewer system.” The federal government response demonstrates the importance of multiple federal agencies acting in coordination, even for man-made disasters such as this. FEMA and the National Guard were initially onsite to help distribute water to Jackson residents. President Biden later pledged to offer Direct Federal Assistance to Jackson and surrounding cities, offering 75% federal funding for 90 days towards relief efforts. The EPA, using funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, had already distributed $75 million to Mississippi in part for water-related infrastructure, but has recently urged Mississippi officials to utilize the money to affect most impacted communities by the water crisis along with providing technical support to Jackson officials. Lastly, the Small Businesses Administration has offered interest free loans to businesses in Jackson affected by the water crisis.
The House of Representatives Passes Antitrust Measures: The House passed a package of three antitrust bills that would be the first significant antitrust legislation update in decades. The first measure would increase merger filing fees on companies, and then use that increase in fees to further fund their Department of Justice’s antitrust division. The second measure would keep active litigation in the court the suit was initially brought in, preventing corporations from moving the suits to corporate-friendly states. The last measure would require merging entities to disclose subsidies received from the Chinese government. The bill heads to the Senate next, where these measures seem likely to pass.
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Allocates 19,000 New Housing Vouchers: HUD announced their most expansive voucher allocation in 20 years, allocating 19,000 new vouchers to over 2,000 public housing authorities across the country.
Railroad Strike Averted: The railroad strike that threatened domestic supply chains was averted due to a last minute deal in part brokered by the Biden administration and the Department of Labor. One of the central disputes was the lack of sick leave for railroad workers, raising attention to the fact that many workers lack any paid sick leave. The railroad workers themselves still must ratify the contract.
Congress Contemplating Police Funding Bills: The House passed four bills authorizing close to $2 billion in grants for law enforcement hiring, training and mental health first responders, highlighting divisions within the Democratic caucus on how to approach public safety. In the House version of the bill, the majority of funding would go towards police resources (hiring and training) while a relatively small amount would go to the mental health first responders. It is unclear how this bill will fare in the Senate, where it heads next.
An Active, Pro-Worker National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): The NLRB has an active force for workers’ rights, promulgating some notable decisions recently. First, they found that Starbucks had illegally withheld wages from unionizing employees and are demanding that Schultz record a video confessing his alleged violations of labor law and explaining the rights of workers in front of union employees. Second, they ruled that workplace policies that bar workers from wearing union insignia to be unlawful, unless there are special circumstances. Third, they denied Amazon’s attempt to overturn the Amazon Labor Union’s successful unionizing effort in Staten Island, and declared that the ALU should be certified to represent workers in the warehouse.