Millionaire West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on Friday threatened to single-handedly block new $2,000 survival checks to millions of Americans, including hundreds of thousands in his own state, which is facing growing starvation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manchin told the Washington Post he will “absolutely not” support a new round of $2,000 survival checks that congressional Democrats and President-elect Joe Biden promised to send out if Democrats managed to win the two Georgia senate runoff races and take back control of the US Senate, which they did on Tuesday.
“How is the money that we invest now going to help us best to get jobs back and get people employed?” Manchin said. “And I can’t tell you that sending another check out is gonna do that to a person that’s already got a check.”
Even investors were upset. The stock market quickly tanked after the report about Manchin’s opposition. Investment bank Goldman Sachs had just finished adjusting its expectations for economic growth based on the idea that Democrats’ Georgia wins would mean “an additional $750 billion in aid,” according to a Bloomberg morning email.
But Manchin’s opposition to survival checks could be especially costly for his constituents. Manchin represents West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation. The last round of stimulus checks only went to individuals who earn less than $75,000 — which includes nearly 70 percent of West Virginians. That means his constituents stand to disproportionately benefit from new rounds of stimulus checks.
Manchin would not be eligible for a check himself, since his senate seat comes with an annual salary of $174,000. He’s also in the commercial real estate business, and was worth an estimated $7 million in 2018, according to Open Secrets.
His constituents, on the other hand, badly need help. According to census data, more than 40 percent of West Virginians are now facing food insecurity. Roughly 13 percent report suffering from food scarcity, meaning they sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat. The percentage of Manchin’s West Virginia constituents who say they often don’t have enough to eat has increased 70 percent during the pandemic.
Manchin’s staff quickly tried to walk back his opposition to new survival checks, telling Bloomberg that he wasn’t actually shooting down the idea entirely, but rather indicating that he doesn’t believe $2,000 checks should be the Senate’s top priority. They said Manchin would prefer that aid be targeted to those who’ve lost their job.
This may sound reasonable on its face, but targeting relief to people who lost their jobs wouldn’t offer any help to people who don’t qualify for unemployment for various reasons or to those who didn’t have jobs to begin with. And there’s one other glaring problem: many state unemployment systems are disasters, which is why more than 1.2 million Americans are still waiting to receive unemployment aid ten months after the coronavirus started forcing widespread shutdowns in the United States.
During previous recent pandemic relief discussions, Manchin initially helped shepherd a bipartisan COVID relief proposal that didn’t include any direct survival payments at all. When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders began pushing for $1,200 survival checks to be included in the proposal, Manchin reportedly fought him on it, arguing that unemployment benefits were more important. Senators ultimately settled on $600 direct payments.
Manchin’s continued insistence on prioritizing unemployment benefits over survival checks — an absolutely unnecessary paean to austerity — comes even as the Democratic Party’s corporate wing is warming up to the idea of broad relief efforts.
“Clearly, there’s a need,” Jim Kessler, the copresident of the Wall Street–friendly think tank Third Way, told the Washington Post on Friday, following reports that unemployment numbers shot up in December.
“The new unemployment numbers are shocking,” Kessler said. “State and local aid has to be part of it. There will be additional stimulus checks. And you have to make sure unemployment benefits continue as well.”
Biden, who’s championed austerity throughout his decades-long career in government, on Friday explicitly called for new deficit spending to help Americans survive the pandemic. “We should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth,” he said.