Tuesday, 02 June 2020 09:27

As TX Businesses Reopen, Short-Lived Coronavirus Safety Net is Dismantled

Written by Emma Platoff, The Texas Tribune


By the end of the month, the Public Utility Commission banned residential utility shutoffs in the markets it regulates and the TWC announced it would distribute an additional $40 million to fund child care. And the U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act, which expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits, in addition to sending anyone earning less than $99,000 annually a check of up to $1,200.


The temporary public benefits were a welcome surprise in a state as parsimonious as Texas. Still, the needs outstripped the new support systems. At the TWC, phone lines were jammed and servers swamped. The state has now marked its highest unemployment rate on record, 12.8%.


And some things never changed. On health care, Texas remained opposed to expanding Medicaid, and the state that has long boasted the highest rate of uninsured residents will add an estimated 1 million more. Texas’ eligibility requirements for Medicaid remain the strictest in the country.


Though the state made it logistically easier to receive federal aid to buy groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program---axing an interview requirement, for example---it did not expand eligibility. That means even Texans with no income could be ineligible if they owned any valuable assets, like a $15,000 car. In April 2020, 417,468 Texans applied for federal aid to buy groceries---more than three times as many as applied in April 2019.


Between the protections that never were and the protections that are no longer gape holes wide enough to swallow millions of needy Texans.


Eviction proceedings have resumed, enough that legal aid attorneys anticipate a crush of work. Debt collections can start again, freezing struggling Texans’ bank accounts. Extra child care subsidies offered to struggling families at the start of the pandemic will be discontinued. And those who are out of work will again have to prove they are searching for a job in a dangerous new world in order to receive unemployment benefits, though the state has not yet confirmed a timeline.


As businesses reopen at limited capacity, state leaders say getting struggling Texans back to work is the most important strategy. Asked about individuals who lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs, Abbott has said the best way to help is to return them to the workforce.


“The best thing we can do is to continue to open up,” Abbott said at a recent press conference.


Others counter that an economy still in recovery itself can’t support the millions of Texans who continue to struggle.