Biden orders expanded aid to address growing hunger crisis

Washington (AFP) –


President Joe Biden is ordering an expansion of government benefits for hungry Americans, after the coronavirus pandemic ignited the worst food crisis the United States has seen in modern times.

The decree, one of two executive orders he is to sign on Friday, represents one of Biden's first actions to revive the world's largest economy after Covid-19 caused mass layoffs that have left many people scrambling to pay the bills.

"The American people can't afford to wait. And so many are hanging by a thread, they need help, and we are committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible," said Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council.

Biden's main initiative to turn the economy around is a $1.9 trillion "rescue" package that he outlined last week, followed by a promised proposal aimed at fueling job creation and spurring hiring.

"Much, much more is needed. And so that's why, as we take these actions, we will continue to engage with Congress and with the American people around the need to move on the American rescue plan," Deese told reporters.

The orders also instruct government agencies to help people more quickly access federal stimulus payments, allow workers to leave jobs that could jeopardize their health, and expand protections for federal workers.

- Economy wrecked -

Even after two massive government aid packages, the US economy is reeling from the damage caused by the pandemic, which has killed more than 410,000 people -- the highest death toll in any country.

The Labor Department reported more than 1.3 million new applications for unemployment were filed last week, and as of the first week of January, nearly 16 million people were still receiving some form of government jobless benefits.

Amid the widespread joblessness, many families are struggling to pay for groceries: the Commerce Department reported in mid-December that 13.7 percent of adults lived in households where they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.

Schools' decisions to close or modify their schedules due to the pandemic worsened the hunger crisis, as many poor children rely on meals served there.

The government last year offered families food aid equivalent to what their children would be getting at school, and Biden's order expands that by 15 percent, which the White House said would give a family with three children more than $100 extra every two months.

The president's order also instructs the Agriculture Department to issue guidance that would allow states to expand food aid to an additional 12 million people, and reevaluate its basis for determining benefits, according to the White House.

"These executive actions are quite a big deal," Lauren Bauer, an economic studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.

"Every other month, a low-income family gets to make another grocery run. That is some serious firepower for the economy."

- 'Model employer' -

Congress has issued many Americans fresh stimulus checks totaling up to $600, but not everyone received them quickly: Biden's order calls for the Treasury Department to find ways to get that money to those in need.

It also asks the Labor Department to let people who turn down jobs that could harm them, including by exposing them to Covid-19, to be allowed to claim unemployment benefits.

Biden's second order restores collective bargaining rights to federal government employees, and instructs agencies to do the preliminary work to allow him to issue a new order requiring federal contractors to pay their workers a minimum of $15 an hour and provide them with paid emergency leave.

"These steps are designed to help ensure the federal government is a model employer," Deese said.

Biden has proposed raising the national minimum wage to $15, but that would require approval by Congress, where Democrats have a slim majority.