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President Biden signs order to increase federal food benefits, among executive actions to stabilize the U.S. economy

President Biden on Jan. 21 said help is on the way to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden on Friday signed a significant increase in federal food assistance for millions of hungry families and other executive actions intended to stabilize the deterioration of the economy, weighed down by the raging coronavirus pandemic.

At a ceremony signing at the White House, Biden touted his $1.9 trillion economic relief measure being debated in Congress, highlighting surprise support from former senior Trump economic adviser Kevin Hassett.

Biden then signed two executive orders, one including a bevy of measures designed to support the economy and another aimed at reinstating protections for the federal workforce.

“The bottom line is this: We’re in a national emergency. We need to act like we’re in a national emergency. So we have to move, with everything we’ve got,” Biden said. “Families are going hungry. People are at risk of being evicted. We need to act."

Biden sought to convey a sense of urgency with his actions Friday, as he had a day earlier with orders related to the coronavirus. While his team is also crafting legislative packages that are broader and would have more impact, the deeply divided Congress is expected to consider them slowly, if at all. Unilateral moves, like Friday’s, project immediate action.

Biden argued during the campaign that the country faces four crises: the pandemic, economic collapse, racial injustice and climate change. Biden clearly sees himself as a crisis president — on Thursday he spoke of a “wartime effort” — and he plans to continue issuing rapid-fire initiatives through next week.

What is less clear, however, is how long Biden has before the political landscape gets even tougher for sweeping action. Republicans are already vocally opposing some of his proposals, calling spending initiatives too costly, and the evenly split Senate is showing little indication of enacting major bills anytime soon.

In Friday’s executive order, Biden asked the Department of Agriculture to allow states to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — commonly known as food stamps — and to increase by 15 percent benefits awarded through a school meals program for low-income students started during the pandemic, according to Biden administration officials. That could give a family of three children more than $100 in extra benefits every two months, officials said.

A growing number of Americans are going hungry

A separate unilateral move aims to help get previously approved stimulus checks into the hands of Americans who haven’t received them yet. And another asks the Labor Department to make clear that workers who refuse to return to working conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus should be eligible for unemployment insurance. Biden is also starting the process to issue an order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

The U.S. economy has shown new signs of damage, particularly in the labor market. Last month, the economy lost jobs for the first time since the recovery began, and weekly jobless claims this month have remained at historic highs. Biden has inherited the worst jobs market of any president in modern history. He has warned that total deaths caused by the coronavirus will soon top 500,000, intensifying fears about the threats of new strains to public health and the economy.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package includes hundreds of billions in additional funding for direct stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and vaccine distribution. Senior Democrats are also drafting legislation that would execute his call to expand a tax credit for children by sending direct monthly payments to millions of American households.

“I want to be very clear: These actions are not a substitute for comprehensive legislative relief,” Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters at a separate briefing Friday. “But they will provide a critical lifeline to millions of American families.”

Conservatives are expected to criticize Biden’s actions, and have generally called for a relaxation of public health restrictions. They also have warned against big spending that would increase deficits.

Stephen Moore, a conservative policy expert who served as an outside adviser to the Trump White House, said the additional funding to increase food assistance is less important than addressing the economic damage caused by the lockdowns.

“The most important stimulus would be for Biden to get blue states to open their restaurants, businesses and schools,” Moore said. “If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how much money the Biden administration spends.”

Other conservative economists objected to the push to boost federal contractor wages to $15 an hour, arguing that businesses reeling from the pandemic could be hurt by increasing pressure on wages.

“In general, on minimum wage, moving toward an expectation of a $15 an hour minimum wage could be dangerous while the economy is still in a precarious position,” said Brian Riedl, a former GOP staffer and policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

Labor groups and workers are pushing Biden to move faster, particularly on his pledge to increase pay for federal contractors. Sherry Collier, 57, works for $12.22 per hour at the Maximus call center in Mississippi, a federal contractor for Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act health exchanges. She said she is struggling with higher bills in part because of an approximately 50 percent increase this year in her own health-care deductible. A request for comment from Maximus wasn’t immediately returned.

“It’s very urgent. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s very hard to make ends meet,” said Collier, who voted for Biden. "Either you have a full course meal with chicken and a vegetable, or you have Rice-A-Roni. Right now, I’m just having Rice-A-Roni because I’m budgeting what I eat. I’m going to bed hungry most nights.”

Biden’s order attempts in several ways to address the surge in hunger in America during the pandemic, with approximately 50 million people, including 17 million children, considered food insecure.

Biden's economic agenda must prop up a buckling U.S. economy long enough for the coronavirus pandemic to wane

Previous coronavirus relief bills did not expand SNAP for the 40 percent of recipients who were already at the maximum benefit. Biden’s new order allows states to increase SNAP emergency allotments for those who need it most, allowing an additional 12 million people to receive enhanced benefits.

Under Biden’s order, an electronic debit card benefit for students will increase by approximately 15 percent. The program is called Pandemic EBT and goes to students who would have qualified for free or reduced-priced school meals were school in session.

Perhaps the most significant change in this executive order is a reassessment of the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for determining SNAP benefits. Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, said the metrics are out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face. The president will ask the USDA to consider beginning the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the modern cost of a healthy basic diet.

“Any one of these in itself would be terrific, but if you bundle them together, these are indeed quite significant in terms of helping Americans get through one of the most terrible times in our lives,” said Catherine D’Amato, chief executive of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Biden will also restore collective bargaining power to federal workers and direct agencies to develop recommendations “directing his administration to start the work” of an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a $15-per-hour minimum wage and provide emergency paid leave. Biden endorsed similar commitments during the presidential campaign.

In terms of stimulus payments, the White House says it will ask the Treasury Department to consider improving its disbursal, in part by “working to make sure those who have not yet accessed their funds get the relief they deserve.”

On Friday, Deese told reporters that the administration will pursue “a number of strategies" to find people who have not received stimulus payments but are entitled to them. That would include setting up a new online portal through the Treasury Department for people to try finding their payments.

Deese added that administration officials want to work through outside organizations to contact those who do not typically file income taxes and may not have received stimulus payments.

“We’re going to work both directly … and with partner organizations to make sure every American entitled to a benefit is actually entitled to it,” Deese said. “Starting today we’re going to start a process to make that a lot easier for families.”

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Biden’s executive actions will also aim to buttress unemployment benefits as about 10 million people remain out of work. Democrats in Congress had for months asked the Trump administration to make clear to states that workers who felt unsafe returning to work because of the coronavirus should not be denied jobless benefits. States had wildly different interpretations of the rules, leading thousands to be deprived of unemployment aid, said Andrew Stettner, an unemployment expert and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank.

“The federal government has a role to tell the states what they should do on this,” Stettner said. “This is significant.”

The executive actions include a number of measures related to federal employees. President Donald Trump had issued an executive order in October that would have stripped civil service protections from federal employees whose work involves policymaking, allowing them to be dismissed with little cause or recourse, much like the political appointees who come and go with each administration.

Civil service experts and union leaders estimated that from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of federal employees in a workforce of 2.1 million would have been swept into the new class of employees, called Schedule F. Biden will reverse that decision.