Since the late summer, millions of Americans have suffered financially: There were no more stimulus checks, boosted federal unemployment benefits ended, and many small businesses didn’t get the help they needed to survive. But it didn’t have to be this way. When funds from the CARES Act, the major federal COVID-19 relief package passed in the spring, dried up, Congress and the Trump administration stalled. Now, after months of failed negotiations and refusals to compromise, Congress is finally inching toward an agreement on a new stimulus package. But while that might be good news, the bipartisan plan, as it currently stands, is simply not enough.
Congress is looking at a $908 billion package, with funds allocated for small-business loans, state and local governments, and enhanced unemployment insurance, among other things. But in almost every category, the spending falls short. Serious negotiations over the bill are only just beginning, but it’s clear that, while a compromise measure like this might be necessary if the alternative is nothing, a far bigger stimulus package — which could ultimately depend on the Senate election outcomes in Georgia — is what the country actually needs.
First, it’s important to consider how the economic crisis has affected more marginalized communities across the country. Unemployment rates for Black and brown people have consistently been higher than for white people; women across racial lines have been disproportionately burdened by the pandemic and recession compared with their male peers; and lower-income earners have been likelier to lose their jobs. In order to avoid a slower recovery for those groups than the more privileged ones, the next relief package should include generous spending, targeted at those suffering most. One of the most effective ways to do that is through enhanced unemployment insurance.
While the current plan would add an extra $300 a week to unemployment benefits from January to March of next year, that’s only half of what the federal government offered in the CARES Act. It’s better than nothing, but given that Congress’s inability to pass relief over the last few months has only caused people to become poorer, hungrier, and, in many cases, potentially homeless, the original $600 benefit is far more appropriate. (And no, it will not discourage work.) More and more people have been paying rent on their credit cards and forgoing their bills, signs of a looming personal debt crisis and that people might need even more cash than they did in the summer. A generous unemployment benefit would be highly effective at targeting the racial and gender gaps that have been exacerbated by this recession because of who unemployment is plaguing the most. (And though the current bill does not provide universal stimulus checks, some form of universal income would also be helpful in order to account for people who might fall through the cracks, such as people who have been chronically unemployed or unable to work, or those who quit their jobs to take care of their families.)
Second, in order to ensure a more equitable outcome and economy in the long term, the federal government needs to direct far more resources toward things like public transit and affordable housing. The current bill only allocates $15 billion for mass transit even though, after the CARES Act, transit agencies sought an additional $32 billion just to cover emergency funds and budget shortfalls. Many cities, including Boston, face drastic cuts that would gut their transit systems, including to reduce weekday hours and suspend weekend service. This would certainly harm lower-wage service-sector workers more than anyone else by eliminating their access to manageable commutes.
Many Republicans are also currently opposing funding for state and local governments in the next bill, but Congress must provide relief for governments that are bracing for budget cuts that could be avoided. Some cities, for example, are planning on spending less on housing subsidies and programs to create and preserve affordable housing next year — the exact opposite of what is clearly needed in a crisis that is leaving people poorer and on the brink of evictions. Shortchanging affordable housing plans could mean more poverty for communities of color and worsen inequality in the United States well beyond the pandemic.
Lastly, as the country enters what seems to be the deadliest stretch of the pandemic, small businesses should be discouraged from facilitating indoor gatherings, which would only worsen the spread of the virus. In order to do so, the federal government should pour money into small businesses to help them stay afloat while they sacrifice revenue in order to follow public health protocols. Measures like the Paycheck Protection Program, which would give small businesses forgivable loans to help keep their employees on the payroll, should be funded and better targeted so that mom-and-pop shops are able to get the funds they need, as opposed to conglomerates earning more than their fair share.
Congress should act fast because Americans are in need of help from their government. If this compromise measure is all congressional leaders can muster now, then it certainly is better than not passing anything. But just doing something is a devastatingly low bar. Whatever stimulus package they come to agree on now should not, come January, discourage the next Congress from passing another, far more ambitious stimulus. Failing to do so would only spell more misery now and inequality for generations to come.
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