There is a lot to like in the House coronavirus stimulus package, but Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III tells me it’s just a down payment on helping Americans deal with and recover from the pandemic’s economic pain.
The House proposal features free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs one, including the uninsured; paid emergency leave consisting of 14 days sick time and up to three months of family and medical leave; enhanced unemployment insurance; strengthened programs for student meals, senior nutrition, and food banks; and increased federal funds for Medicaid as states face bigger health care bills.
Kennedy, in an interview Friday, said the package allows people affected by Covid-19 to “exhale a little bit.”
The measures are focused on the people who can least afford to lose a paycheck. They are the newly laid off because of outbreak-related cancellations, and people who face financial hardship when under quarantine and can’t work from home. They are the hotel maids, people hawking hot dogs at sports arenas who wouldn’t be needed if teams play without fans, or the gig workers — Uber and Lyft drivers — who find themselves with shrunken paychecks because people aren’t out and about. Or working families who will rack up higher child care costs or be forced to take time off when schools are closed.
But the one idea you won’t find in this package is a direct cash payment to every American, a proposal pushed by Harvard professor Jason Furman over the last week to prevent the economy from falling off a cliff. It would work like this: Dispense $1,000 for every adult who is a US citizen or tax-paying resident, and $500 for every child who meets the same criteria. If the unemployment rate rises next year and beyond, Uncle Sam would send out another installment.
Kennedy, turns out, likes Furman’s idea and wants to see stimulus checks play a role in the next fiscal package. Sure, proposals to ease student loan debts or help with mortgage payments would be useful, but a broad cash payment program ensures everyone who could use extra money gets some.
"Every family’s needs are going to be different,” said Kennedy, who is running against Ed Markey to represent Massachusetts in the Senate.
Yes, the concept is Andrew Yang-esque, but it’s not without precedent. When the US economy needed propping up in 2008, George W. Bush enacted a similar measure that provided up to $600 in stimulus checks for individuals and up to $1,200 for married couples. Bush also issued tax rebates in 2001 that allowed up to $300 for individuals and as much as $600 for households.
Furman, who was a top economic adviser to Barack Obama, spelled out his stimulus idea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week.
If it seems too broad of a stroke, it is by design ― to get money quickly to people who can least afford missing a paycheck. Making people jump through hoops would delay the infusion of funds.
“I wouldn’t get too fancy with the targeting,” Furman told me in an interview. “This is crude. I think it’s worth it. There would be enough people who need the money. There is a certain fairness.”
The House reached a deal with the White House Friday night on a coronavirus package to spend tens of billions of dollars. President Trump had been at odds with the Democrats; he has favored a payroll tax cut and perhaps bailouts for hard-hit industries like airlines and hotels. (Furman believes both are bad ideas.)
“There should be a very high bar before bailouts for particular industries are considered,” he said. “We have a very good bankruptcy system in the United States. We have a very good set of capital markets. In most situations, they can handle it.”
Deficit hawks may squawk about stimulus checks, but Furman said record-low interest rates make it a good time for the government to borrow money. He estimates it would cost about $275 billion. Plus, when a public health emergency evolves into economic pain, Uncle Sam shouldn’t be pinching pennies. “Now is not the time to be worried about the deficit,” Furman said.
The jury is out on whether stimulus checks actually stimulate an economy that is 70 percent driven by the consumer spending. Many people may just save the money. But our economy has never been forced to shutdown so quickly, and nobody knows for how long.
Of the House package Furman, in an e-mail, called it “a great first step," but he suspects our economy will need more.
“The House should come back and do something even bigger to miss the many families that will be left out of the targeted protections in this bill and also more commensurate in size to the problem we are facing," he wrote.
With a pandemic upon us, the House is rightly focused on bailing out Main Street, not Wall Street. But this just has to be the beginning of help extended to ordinary Americans during these extraordinary times.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.