Biden ordering stopgap help as talks start on big aid plan

President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (AP)

BALTIMORE – President Joe Biden took executive action Friday to speed a stopgap measure of financial relief to millions of Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic while Congress begins to consider his much larger $1.9 trillion package.

The two executive orders that Biden signed would increase food aid, protect job seekers on unemployment and clear a path for federal workers and contractors to get a $15 hourly minimum wage.

“This can help tens of millions of families — especially those who cannot provide meals for their kids,” Biden said. “A lot of Americans are hurting. The virus is surging. ... No matter how you look at it, we need to act.”

Biden described the pandemic situation in the U.S. as bleak, saying the virus could not be stopped in the next several months and predicting that well over 600,000 would die. The nation's death toll has just passed 400,000.

The administration has emphasized the orders are not substitutes for the additional stimulus that Biden says is needed beyond the $4 trillion in aid that has already been approved, including $900 billion this past December. Several Republican lawmakers have voiced opposition to provisions in Biden's plan for direct payments to individuals, state and local government aid and a $15 hourly minimum wage nationwide.

Most economists believe the United States can rebound with strength once people are vaccinated from the coronavirus, but the situation is still dire as the disease has closed businesses and schools. Nearly 10 million jobs have been lost since last February, and nearly 30 million households lack secure access to food.

One of Biden's orders asks the Agriculture Department to consider adjusting the rules for food assistance, so that the government could be obligated to provide more money to the hungry.

Children who are unable to get school meals because of remote learning could receive a 15% increase in food aid, according to a fact sheet provided by the White House. The lowest-income households could qualify for the emergency benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And the formula for calculating meal costs could become more generous.