By Klairane Gumbs

America was unprepared for Covid-19. Health, finances, family responsibilities, safety and more are deeply impacted by the global pandemic. Non-essential businesses have closed, forcing millions of Americans out of work and scrambling to file for unemployment insurance.

Congress passed an economic stimulus package that, at first glance, seemed like needed relief to those trying to make ends meet. However, the reality is the COVID-19 relief package does not provide enough consumer protections and leaves many low-income households financially broken. Many Americans could be susceptible to financial scams and predatory lending practices that increase debt and disproportionately affect Black and brown people.

Klairane Gumbs (Courtesy Photo)

As a community organizer focused on financial protections for low-income communities, I have heard many stories of households facing impossible decisions. For example: groceries, medicines or utilities? Pick one.

Here’s what the latest COVID-19 relief package missed and what is needed. The package lacks basic consumer relief, such as a temporary pause on debt collection and halting any termination of utilities. More than 7 million Americans are unemployed and the stimulus package will barely assist families for 2 weeks. This is where we see a dangerous trend.

As Americans face scary financial situations, they are forced to take out loans to pay basic bills. Stories of no gas or electricity to cook meals or keep food refrigerated, as well as a lack of internet for children’s schoolwork or virtual healthcare needs, are all too commonplace. Predatory lenders will attempt discriminatory price-gouging practices during this  economic downturn. This is a harsh reality, but the government has the power to stop predatory lenders.

Here’s the sad truth though: our current administration has not enforced existing regulations or done enough to protect vulnerable borrowers. However, all levels of government can and should lend a hand.

Local lawmakers and the federal government have the power to call for economic relief – stop utility termination, pause debt collections and protect borrowers from predatory lenders. It is time to abolish the practice of utility termination that disproportionately affects low-income families. Utility companies should work with customers and provide fair payment plans instead of cruelly shutting off essentials during this daunting time. Placing a pause on debt collections will help Americans survive and get back on their feet to help move the economy. Finally, governments can enforce and strengthen policies to protect Americans from predatory lenders.

Debt relief and stronger consumer protections are commonsense solutions necessary to give Americans a fighting chance,  speed up economic recovery and provide a healthy environment. What impacts one, impacts all. We can and must do better together.

Klairane Gumbs, a community organizer for the New Georgia Project’s End Predatory Lending campaign, received her B.A. in criminal justice from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. To learn more about New Georgia Project, please visit www.newgeorgiaproject.org.