The Lives Hanging in the Balance of Build Back Better

The Lives Hanging in the Balance of Build Back Better

The Lives Hanging in the Balance of Build Back Better

As negotiations drag on, the economic security of millions of Americans is at stake. For these four families, the bill would make an enormous difference.


As 2021 races to a close, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s entire domestic agenda hangs in the balance. Biden and Democratic lawmakers have been hard at work putting together a massive legislative package to address a number of key priorities, including health care, housing, caregiving, education, and climate change. But with Republicans marching in lockstep against it, Democrats can only pass the Build Back Better agenda on their own, requiring that every member vote in favor.

The House has passed its version of the legislation, but in the Senate some conservative Democrats have said that they would refuse to vote for the plan unless it’s smaller and cheaper (even as they’ve also resisted provisions in the bill that would raise revenue, such as a higher corporate tax rate and tougher IRS enforcement for the wealthy) and even proposed slowing the whole process down. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to get it passed before Christmas, but it’s still unclear if the party can meet that tight deadline.

As lawmakers negotiate, millions of Americans’ finances and lives are at stake. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin staunchly opposed including paid family leave, while demanding that expanded monthly Child Tax Credits, enacted earlier this year by Democrats, be seriously whittled down or removed entirely. Other key policy areas, such as funding for housing and home health care, have been cut in half or more from what President Biden initially proposed. But these policies, if put into effect in a substantial way, would mean significant, concrete changes for people struggling with serious needs. These are just a few stories of those whose lives stand to be transformed if Congress finally acts once and for all.

The Child Tax Credit

Guadalupe De la Cruz has been an advocate for farmworker rights and labor rights in Florida for a decade. It’s a calling with deep roots in her own family: Her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and both worked in agriculture; to this day her mother works at a greenhouse. Her work “has a real personal connection to my own personal life,” she said. “I’m advocating for my parents, and advocating for the rights that for many years my parents were denied.”

But despite her passion for the work, her salaries at nonprofits have always been low. De la Cruz is a single mother raising a seven-year-old daughter. Despite having a full-time job, she lives paycheck-to-paycheck. “It has been a struggle for a while,” she said. There are times when it’s hard to make rent, and her lights have sometimes been shut off because of lack of payment. She tries to hide her tight finances from her daughter, but there have been times when she’s had to tell her she couldn’t buy her something she wanted or needed.

Even today, her income still goes directly to bills—the rent, the utilities, her car payment, her car insurance—leaving nothing extra to help her save. “I’m not prepared at all for an emergency, should it happen,” she said. “You want to have some kind of security net built up for yourself and your child.” But it’s impossible on her income.

Then in July, De la Cruz received an extra $250 in her bank account thanks to an expansion and reform of the Child Tax Credit that Democrats passed earlier this year, a payment she’ll get every month until the end of the year, as will millions of other American parents. The money brought “relief,” she said. She’s used it to cover necessities like her utility bill and gas to drive her daughter to and from school.

“It’s just a relief to know that there’s some extra cash there for anything that may pop up, whether it’s covering a doctor’s visit, whether it’s being able to pack my kid’s lunch this week,” she said. “It’s just good to know that there’s something there that’s going to help along the way.”

The payments, however, are set to disappear after December unless Congress acts. Currently, Democrats have included a one-year extension in their Build Back Better legislative package, although some members have pushed to narrow it down or add extra barriers, such as a work requirement and a lower income limit, to getting it. The last payments went out in mid December, a difficult time of year. “I’ve been working really hard just to budget to be able to make Christmas happen,” she said. If the payments were to continue, it would ease the holiday crunch, and it “would definitely mean security.”

“It’s horrible to think that it took a pandemic for our government to step in and try to help folks,” she said. But, now that it’s here, she wants lawmakers to keep it. “These are people’s lives that are in the middle of this,” she said.

Public Housing

La Keesha Taylor has lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the top floor of the Holmes Towers, a public housing complex on the Upper East Side of New York City, for her entire life. “We’ve been here through thick and thin. We’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and wrapped around back to bad,” she said. When her parents moved in, the building was new. If something broke, it wasn’t fixed “instantaneously,” but residents could go to the management office and sign up for a slot to have a repairperson come by, she said. They might be an hour or two late, but they would show.

Today, she lives in the same apartment with her two sons, ages 7 and 10. It’s affordable, and it’s in a “decent” neighborhood, she said. But to live in public housing now is to live with a constant need for repairs that never seems to get met. There’s one maintenance person for her entire building, she said. And if that person can’t make the repair, a specialist has to be brought in. She signs up to have someone come by at a certain day and time and no one comes. “You take the time off work and they don’t show up,” she said. “That’s just disrespectful.”

Taylor has waited up to two years for repairs. “I’ll just sit there on the list, just waiting and waiting,” she said. This spring, she requested repair of one of her windows, which doesn’t fully close, but by the time a specialist arrived it was the middle of summer and she had already screwed her air conditioning unit into the window, blocking the repair. The building’s boiler and plumbing are so old that when it comes to hot water, “sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn’t,” she said, but the building won’t buy a new boiler.

Even repairs that are finally made are often shoddy. When she had her cabinets fixed, the workers created a hole in her wall and then neglected to glue the cabinets over it. “I had roaches for months,” she said, until she finally realized the problem and bought foam to patch it up on her own. When she had mold in her bathroom, someone came to clean  three different times, but the mold kept coming back until she bought her own mold-resistant paint and painted the room herself.

The common areas get little love, either. “The staircases smell disgusting,” she said. There are gnats buzzing in the hallways even in the dead of winter. The disrepair goes far beyond the cosmetic. When her youngest son was two, it cost her her job. She was working as a kindergarten teacher when the elevators kept going out of service for repairs. She lives 25 flights up and found herself carrying her 2-year-old up and down the stairs every day. She was late to work so many times that she was asked to leave—not to mention that she had to resort to having her toddler walk up flights of stairs on his own when she could no longer carry him.

The United States has long failed to invest enough money to keep public housing updated and functional, and in the 1970s began giving cities money to tear it down instead. Taylor is a founder of the Holmes Issacs Coalition, a group fighting for better conditions in her public housing complex. “We have to make sure that the federal government is doing their part,” she said. “They haven’t been doing their fair share for a very long time.” But the Build Back Better package would invest $65 billion in repairing and renovating public housing, among other affordable housing initiatives. Taylor sees that funding as a good step. “Any money that is going to be poured into public housing and is going to stop this idea that we need to privatize public housing is great,” she said. Still, she worries that it won’t be enough or won’t actually get spent where the need is.

“We are living in deplorable conditions,” she said. “It is time for us to get what we deserve.”

Paid Family Leave

To make ends meet, Kris Garcia holds two jobs, one as a mechanical assembly lead manufacturing medical devices and one for an airline at the Denver International Airport. In March, after a blizzard hit Colorado, he fell while working his airport job.

At first doctors thought he had sprained his wrist, until an MRI revealed that he had chipped a bone and a piece of it was causing pain whenever he rotated his hand. He had to go in for surgery, after which he was supposed to recover for six to eight weeks. But he only had 32 hours of paid time off from work saved up. While Colorado voters recently approved a paid family leave program, it won’t be implemented for a few more years. So instead he had his surgery on a Tuesday and was back at work that Thursday with his hand in a cast. “I’m elevating it at my desk, I’ve got ice packs on,” he recalled.

The poor recovery has now created a new problem: the development of a ganglion cyst in his wrist that’s currently pressing on a nerve, causing constant shooting pain and leaving three fingers numb. That will have to be drained with a needle. It’s typically a straightforward procedure, but because Garcia has hemophilia, the surgery and recovery are more complicated. So he’ll have to take a day off for the procedure and a day to recover, and then four hours every other day in the aftermath to drive to and from the hospital and get blood infusions. There’s a more convenient option—he could get a peripherally inserted central catheter instead, allowing him to do infusions at home and avoid missing work—but it’s more expensive, and his insurance doesn’t always approve it.

So to plan for surgery, Garcia has to game out how to ensure he can afford the time not working. He’s trying to figure out how to “most utilize the time off that I have and make it stretch, versus probably what’s in my best interest,” he said. It’s like “playing a game of cat and mouse with insurance, my work, trying to balance my life, and not financially go under.”

He’s not the only one in his family who’s struggled with a lack of paid family leave. Garcia’s wife works at a grocery store and similarly gets no leave. So when he went in for his first surgery she had to be at work instead of at his side. The doctors called her in the middle of the procedure while she was working to tell her that he had abnormal bleeding and they had to give him plasma.

Garcia figures he’ll be getting only about half his normal pay while he deals with the cyst. It’s a tough time to be facing a loss of income, considering that he has thousands in medical bills to pay off from the first surgery. He also makes the most money out of everyone in his household. “It’s financial Russian roulette,” he said. “What do we pay first, what’s a priority, what’s not? Who can help out with this bill this month?”

Garcia would love to get a break just to relax. “I wish I had time off to take a vacation with my wife and kid,” he said. “But it’s not really an option when I’m constantly having to save those hours in case I get hurt or for when I need my infusions.” His stepson had a baby this past summer, and his wife wants to travel to Chicago to meet the baby in the spring, but Garcia is afraid to use up paid time off that he may require later in the year for his medical needs.

The only way he could take a vacation, he said, is if he were guaranteed paid family leave. “I could actually, instead of trying to ration my time here and there, actually be able to use that to go have some time with the family and be able to enjoy those kinds of things.”

Democrats originally vowed to guarantee Americans paid family leave in their Build Back Better legislative package, but the policy has since been narrowed and even stripped out. The House has included four weeks in its version, which is “a start,” Garcia said, although Colorado will eventually guarantee 12. The Senate may remove paid family leave entirely.

Much of the debate over paid leave has been devoted to the need for time off after the arrival of a new baby. But Garcia noted that it’s important for other reasons, too. “Not only in the good times, like when somebody’s having a birth, but when somebody’s sick, somebody’s dying,” he said. His lack of leave meant that years ago he had to decide to take his father off of life support while at work, and then nearly lost his job when he took three days off to go home and deal with his father’s body. He had to rush back before his father was actually interred. “I never even got to see where my dad is buried,” he said. “I don’t even know where his spot is.”

Home Health Care

Tracy Mills Jones has been taking care of others in California for nearly a quarter-century. It started when her mother was bedridden with Alzheimer’s and Jones quit her cosmetics job, which paid $10 an hour, to care for her. Back then, as a home care aid for her mother, she made less than $4 an hour for a few hours a day, despite caring for her mother around the clock. “It wasn’t worth the hassle of doing the timesheet,” she recalled with a laugh.

But that work sparked a lifelong calling. After her mother passed away, her brother suffered a stroke and lost a kidney, so Jones quit a different job to care for him. She started taking on other clients, and also ended up caring for her husband when he was diagnosed with fatal cancer. “People call me all the time for other people that they need taking care of,” she said. She can’t say no. “I’ve always done jobs like this,” she said. “I just can’t stop helping.”

Jones is currently caring for two clients: her brother, who needs dialysis three days a week, and a family friend who has glaucoma and is visually impaired. Her days start at 6 in the morning and often don’t end until 9 at night. She helps her brother get to his appointments and assists him with cooking, cleaning, and going to the grocery store. She goes to her other client once a day to help keep his house clean and take him places he needs to go. She cooks him food in her own home and brings it to his house, putting meat and fish in round containers and beans and rice in square ones so he can heat them up on his own. “Once you get a client, even whether or not it’s your blood relative, they become your family and you treat them like your family,” she said.

Today, thanks to advocacy from her union SEIU 2015, she makes $15 an hour. The raise “kind of hurt and it kind of helped, too,” she said. Extra money allowed her to save up for a down payment and buy her own house. But it also means she doesn’t qualify for government programs like food stamps, and “it’s not enough for me to pay all my bills that come with the house,” she noted. As a homeowner she now has to cover the home insurance, gas, water, electricity, and even to have her trash picked up. That last bill became too much to afford when Jones lost work in the pandemic, so she started piling big bags of trash along the side of her house. It worked until crows started pulling them apart, so she piled them in the back of her late husband’s pickup truck, pushed it onto the street, and waited until the city towed the whole thing away.

Her union also fought to secure some compensation for the costs of driving to and from her clients, but it covers just seven hours a week. Her new home is in Palmdale because she couldn’t afford to stay in Los Angeles, but the family friend lives in the city, often a two-hour drive home in the evening. Much of her meager paycheck has to cover gas, too.

Money “is real tight,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out which Peter I’m going to rob to pay Paul.”

Her son still qualifies for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, but it’s “so much work,” she said, and a lot of the care he needs isn’t covered. “I want to be completely off of anything,” she said—all government programs. She figures it would take a raise to at least $20 an hour to make that happen.

The Build Back Better package includes $150 billion in new spending on home- and community-based services, some of which is meant to increase pay and benefits for the workers, like Jones, who provide such care. For Jones, the potential wage increase “would at least take me to almost middle class,” she said. She could afford to get her son better health insurance, fix up her house, and afford her monthly bills. “I could feel a productive member of society,” she said.

Thanks to grants included in the legislation, Jones could also get more training. “I had to learn by learning to do what I had to do,” she said. When she first started caring for her mother, “I knew nothing about nothing,” she said. To clean her, Jones would don a bathing suit and get in the shower with her, holding her upright, until a nurse visited and suggested she get a shower chair.

Jones is excited enough at the prospect of the new funding in Democrats’ spending plan that in November she traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in a march supporting its passage. “Build Back Better would help us,” she said. It’s a message she hopes lawmakers will hear.

Each one of these Americans is doing as much as he or she can: working when able, usually full time, and trying to save and plan as much as possible. But without stronger investments and policies at the federal level, they’re all living on the edge of financial collapse. The Build Back Better package has been criticized for its cost—even though the money will be spent over a decade and offset by mechanisms to increase government revenues—but the figures are so large because the need is, too. If Democrats fail to act, or don’t act boldly enough, that need will continue to be unaddressed.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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