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Editorial: Free N95 masks and COVID tests to Americans? It’s about time

Two men in masks walk in a corridor.
President Biden leaves a meeting with the Senate Democratic Caucus on Capitol Hill on Jan. 13, 2022.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Almost two years into the pandemic, the federal government is finally moving to send coronavirus tests and N95 masks to people across the nation in an effort to fight the Omicron variant. You can now sign up to receive four free at-home rapid tests, and the Biden administration is planning to ship 400 million masks to pharmacies and health centers for people to pick up for free starting next week.

President Biden has been rightly criticized for not acting sooner. Americans could have used these supplies months ago. But these nationwide distribution efforts should also serve as an occasion to demonstrate government’s capacity to make people’s lives better. There should be more straight-to-the-masses assistance, whether it’s protective equipment, child tax credit payments or relief checks to help people cope with multiple, overlapping crises, from the coronavirus to child care and housing.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that government aid should be meaningful and direct, with as little friction as possible. Just send people the assistance they need and let them decide the best way to use it. Though this certainly applies to masks and tests, this approach is just as important when it comes to financial support.

It’s unacceptable that parents spend more on childcare than on housing in most of California. Families shouldn’t have to go broke raising the next generation of taxpayers.

The three rounds of coronavirus stimulus payments most Americans received starting in April 2020 were transformational in large part because they simply arrived in people’s bank accounts and mailboxes, with no strings attached. The payments were straightforward and helpful. Just money to help you through a really tough time.

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Similarly uncomplicated was last year’s expansion of the child tax credit, which crucially was paid out in advance. In July, tens of millions of families started receiving automatic monthly payments of as much as $300 per child. It was a powerful tool to lift children out of poverty and literally life changing for families, providing a much-needed influx of cash in the middle of each month at a time when their lives remain upended and littered with unexpected expenses due to the never-ending chaos of the pandemic.

Abandoning this transformational expansion of the child tax credit would set back efforts to lift the next generation out of poverty.

That is until this month, when Congress allowed those child tax credit payments to expire, just as Omicron wreaks havoc on schools and child care and rapid inflation is making everything more expensive. That’s a huge mistake, and lawmakers must act to revive them.

As we start to receive our federally issued test kits and respirators and perhaps begin to emerge from one of the most frantic phases of the pandemic, let’s hope our leaders learn that when it comes to helping Americans with the most pressing challenges, they shouldn’t overthink it. Just send those masks, tests and payments, and let us take it from there.


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