Saint Paul mayor: Now that Democrats are in control, let’s really help struggling Americans

Melvin Carter, mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Scott Takushi
Melvin Carter, mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Scott Takushi

Laying the foundation for a more inclusive and resilient economy:While the vaccine can reduce our likelihood to contract the novel coronavirus, we must also take urgent action to cure the underlying social pathogens which this virus has so vividly exposed,” says mayor Melvin Carter.

Opinion by: Melvin Carter, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota

With Democrats preparing to control the presidency, House and Senate in 2021, we have an opportunity — and a duty — to authorize a bold investment capable of seeing our country through the historic and compound crises of today.

Covid-19 is undeniably one of the greatest challenges our country has ever faced. With more than 20 million confirmed cases, 356,000 lives lost and 12 million Americans collecting unemployment benefits, this pandemic poses an existential threat to many American lives, families and businesses.

The impacts have been swift and enormous.

Families in our city of Saint Paul are struggling to pay rent and feed their children. Since mid-March, 39% of our county’s labor force has applied for unemployment benefits. We have endured a tenfold increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness, just as social distancing guidelines have reduced shelter capacity.

Disappointingly, the one-time $600 stimulus payments and $300 per week supplemental unemployment benefits authorized in the second coronavirus relief package fall far short of the ‘all-in’ national response this pandemic demands.

Efforts to push for more direct federal aid have garnered a spectrum of support rarely seen in today’s polarized political climate, from President Trump to some of our most progressive members of Congress.

Indeed, incoming Majority Leader Schumer wasted no time, upon learning of the Georgia results, in referring to calls to increase stimulus checks to $2,000 as “one of the first things that I want to do when our new senators are seated.”

Yet, while the proposed $2,000 stimulus checks will undoubtedly help postpone some disastrous effects of the pandemic economy, even that increased amount will likely prove insufficient to help our most vulnerable neighbors find stability.

Ten months into this crisis — with no clear end in sight — we need a bold federal investment that exhibits nothing short of a new national standard of care.

We need Congress to support ongoing payments, targeted to both those who saw their income gutted in 2020 and to those who lived in poverty long before the pandemic, and large enough to put key public health measures like quarantining in a safe home, taking time off to care for a sick relative and accessing quality medical care within reach for every American.

In addition, our national effort to defeat Covid-19 must include increased support for the state, local and tribal governments that serve Americans who too often fall through the cracks of our federal safety net. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act established a $150 billion fund to assist states and local jurisdictions with over 500,000 residents, Saint Paul’s population falls just shy of that threshold.

Fortunately, we were able to access the federal relief funds as a sub-grant from state government. Those funds proved critical in maintaining public services and avoiding mass layoffs. Unfortunately, these funds are now exhausted, and Congress failed to add resources to the fund in the most recent stimulus bill.

There is no middle ground: Either help us all or leave all of us vulnerable.

Despite all of these challenges, our city has continued to mobilize all the resources our community has to offer. We have leveraged public, private and philanthropic resources to offer more than $4 million in cash assistance to low-income families and small businesses. We have helped coffee shops and restaurants set up sidewalk cafes to stay afloat and repurposed city-owned buildings as temporary emergency shelters while we leveraged Covid-relief funds to invest in additional long-term resources to serve our residents experiencing homelessness.

City staff have also worked with local organizations to distribute over 1 million meals to families in need. And we partnered with Mayors for a Guaranteed Income (MGI) and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to launch our People’s Prosperity Pilot, which will provide 150 low-income families with a $500 monthly benefit for a period of 18 months.

I will be forever grateful to the public employees who have demonstrated their deep commitment to our residents, workers and businesses through these fragile months.

New demands on the public services they provide have hit alongside significant reductions to many of the revenues we rely on — from property taxes to parking fees. Yet, so far, we have managed to avoid layoffs of the frontline workers our community relies on today more than ever, thanks to a combination of CARES Act funding received from the state and painful reductions we’ve made in our 2020 and 2021 annual budgets.

Saint Paul is far from alone. Local leaders across the country have spent the past year scrambling to help families and businesses survive these unprecedented challenges. But our communities need much more help than our limited local budgets can provide.

As we reflect on 2020, we may conclude that many of the year’s crises pre-date the pandemic. Health care disparities, hunger, economic hardship and violence have plagued American families for far too long.

While the vaccine can reduce our likelihood to contract the novel coronavirus, we must also take urgent action to cure the underlying social pathogens which this virus has so vividly exposed.

Our actions now will either renew and reinforce these vulnerabilities or lay the foundation for a more inclusive and resilient economy. Providing ongoing federal support for families and resources for local communities to help our most vulnerable neighbors would be a meaningful first step.


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