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The old story goes that the mad Roman emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned, a disaster that he blamed on the early Christians, who paid for it with some nasty persecution.

In fairness to Nero, however, this didn’t happen. Well, at least the fiddle part didn’t, since these weren’t invented until the Renaissance. If he played anything, and I’m not saying he did, it would have been a kithara, a harp-like stringed instrument whose name morphed into our word for guitar.

But that’s not important right now. The meaning of the saying is that, sometimes people in power seem to be totally oblivious to the sufferings of others.

A case in point of the latter is Congress dithering around rather than passing another round of COVID-19 relief in the face of massive unemployment, hunger and suffering.

Since many of the CARES Act benefits that directly reached families and kept local economies going expired, poverty is on the rise. Studies by Columbia University and the University of Chicago found that the number of people in poverty increased by 4 million this summer. In a recent report, the Department of Health and Human Services anticipated that number to climb.

According to an analysis of recent census data by the DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in October, at least 11.5 million adults in rental housing, around one out of six renters, weren’t caught up on their rent. At the same time, 80 million adults, or about one in three, found meeting basic expenses — such as food, housing, car payments, medical costs or student loans — to be difficult or somewhat difficult.

These trends are hitting households with children especially hard. Renters with children were twice as likely to be behind in rent, which could lead to increased evictions and homelessness.

According to the center, “An estimated 42% of children live in households that have trouble covering usual expenses. They include 61% of children in Black households and 49% of children in Latino households, as well as 34% of children in white households.”

And, as Thanksgiving approaches, less than half of all American households reported being “very confident” about their ability to afford food in the days ahead.

In West Virginia, that’s 57%, with 12% reporting having trouble feeding kids now and 9% not at all confident about the future. All around the state, people are making heroic efforts to ensure access to food, but that’s no substitute for meaningful action related to food security, housing assistance, unemployment, income supports and help with utilities.

Without action, the situation will get even worse when Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation expires on Dec. 31.

It’s way past time for action.

Rick Wilson is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist and a member of the American Friends Service Committee.