Responding to the findings of a new national survey that shows millions of Americans are struggling to afford medical care, food, and other essentials, the head of a health research organization called on federal lawmakers to shake themselves from “a state of complacency” and deliver far-reaching policy changes to permanently improve the lives of lower- and middle-class people.

Writing in The Hill on Tuesday, Dr. Richard Besser of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) said the organization’s new survey shows that despite the passage of temporary economic relief in federal coronavirus legislation, nearly 40% of U.S. households in recent months have still faced serious financial struggles in the past few months.

“The notion of America being a land of opportunity is a fantasy for millions of people, reserved only for those of privilege.”

Economic relief that was passed in 2020 and earlier this year markedly reduced the rate of poverty in the U.S., Besser noted.

“Whether these declines represent the start of a more equitable policy era will soon be revealed as Congress enters the homestretch of negotiations over a budget reconciliation measure that represents a historic opportunity to transform people’s lives both in the short-term and long after the pandemic recedes,” he wrote, referring to the Build Back Better Act—the proposed $3.5 trillion decade-long investment in “human infrastructure.”

“Congress simply cannot let this opportunity pass,” wrote Besser.

The RWJF conducted the new survey along with NPR and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health between August 2 and September 7, polling 3,600 U.S. adults as the Delta variant spread rapidly in areas with low vaccination rates. 

Among households earning less than $50,000 per year, the percentage of families facing serious financial hardship rose to 59%. While 19% of households nationwide reported having lost all their savings since the pandemic started, the same was true for 30% of lower-income households.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they had received some form of government assistance since the pandemic began—in the form of child tax credits, the federal eviction moratorium, unemployment benefits, and other relief.

“Results from this survey show that a substantial share of households across the U.S. have not been adequately protected from financial problems,” wrote the organizations behind the research.

“The short-term policy response to the pandemic has revealed the type of nation we could be if we continue to move forward.”

The groups pointed out that the polling measured Americans’ experiences prior to the expiration of pandemic unemployment assistance in early September and right after the Biden administration allowed the eviction moratorium to expire.

The survey’s estimates about the state of households’ financial wellbeing “do not include the potential impact of these events,” the groups wrote.

As the eviction ban ended, the survey showed, 27% of renters reported difficulty paying their rent in the past several months. Eighteen percent of respondents said at least one person in their household had been unable to get medical care for a serious health issue in recent months, and 78% of those reporting an inability to get care had health insurance.

With the number of Americans facing poverty dropping by 20 million last year from 2018 thanks to federal aid packages, Besser wrote, “the short-term policy response to the pandemic has revealed the type of nation we could be if we continue to move forward—one where all people truly have a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible.”

“The next few weeks will reveal whether our congressional representatives are up to the task,” he added.

The survey was released as progressives in Congress pushed back against claims by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders that the cost of the Build Back Better Act, which President Joe Biden hopes to pass through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, could need to be slashed in order to secure the votes of conservative Democrats.

As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are warning against leaving far-reaching programs like affordable housing, public transportation, and other safety net protections out of the bill.

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Besser agreed, pushing Congress in his editorial to ensure that permanent child tax credits, affordable housing, guaranteed paid leave, and other provisions remain in the package.

“The final negotiations over the budget reconciliation measure could be among the most consequential in generations,” Besser wrote. “The notion of America being a land of opportunity is a fantasy for millions of people, reserved only for those of privilege.”

“The budget reconciliation measure is the best chance in decades to help create an America in which skin color, income level, neighborhood, disability, occupation, and immigration status no longer determine how long and how well people live,” he added.